Sleeping and Waking for Shift Work

Shift workers face special challenges in their everyday work: They have to fight against their inner clock and work in a different rhythm. Sleep expert Dr. Michael Feld has valuable tips.

 
Dr. Michael Feld

Sleeping and Waking for Shift Work and in the Winter

Shift workers face special challenges in their everyday work: They have to fight against their inner clock and work in a different rhythm to many other people. Sleep expert Dr. Michael has some valuable tips for them.

Peter Stadler

Dr. Michael Feld

is sleep expert and  supports Bayer with the BGM annual campaign "ErholDichGUT". He co-authored "Schlafatlas 2017 - So schläft Deutschland" (www.schlafatlas.de), a study about the sleeping behavior of people in Germany. 

Darkness makes us feel tired, particularly at night. This seemingly trivial statement is, in fact, acutely relevant to anyone who has to work nights or the early shift, particularly during the scarce daylight of winter.

Over the course of time, the human biological clock has accustomed itself to the Earth’s rotation and 24-hour cycle of day and night. The master clock in our brains reacts strongly to light and darkness to set the rhythm of our daily life.

Particularly the bright, colder light of the high morning and midday sun, which contains a higher proportion of blue wavelengths, activates the brain, sets all our body’s switches to go and lifts our mood. The warmer, orange-red light from the sun as it starts to descend in the afternoon and during twilight prepares us for the evening and night and prompts us to start winding down. After sundown, darkness normally spreads (in the absence of any artificial light source), prompting the pineal gland to excrete the hormone melatonin, which takes charge for the night and informs all the body’s cells that the phase for regeneration, repair, detoxification, refreshment and renewal is about to commence – in other words, sleep.

Working nights turns the circadian clock on its head and push our internal clocks to run in the opposite direction from that of our environment.

Working nights turns the circadian clock on its head and pushes our internal clocks to run in the opposite direction from that of our environment. The “night owls” among us, who naturally prefer to go to bed late and sleep longer in the morning, are generally better genetically disposed to working at night than “early birds,” who retire and rise at earlier hours of the day.

Night work is crucial to many vital services – such as police, firefighters, emergency services, doctors, nurses, caregivers, airport staff, pilots, cabin crew and large sections of industry. Our modern-day lifestyles depend on shift work. However, shift workers need to take particular care in getting their sleep and set up conducive conditions.

Short walks will help to kick-start the body and mind

For instance, it helps to wear sunglasses if possible after finishing work in the morning to prevent bright light from hitting the retina. The bedroom needs to be kept peaceful, dark and cool (between 64.4 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit (18 and 20 degrees Celsius)), and friends and family should avoid disturbing the shift worker’s rest. Sleep can either be taken in one block during the day or spread over several naps. In the evening, before the shift commences, a short walk in the fresh air and 20 to 30 minutes’ exposure to a bright light box that emits 5,000–10,000 lux will help to kick-start the body and mind.

Right now, during the dark part of the year when the sun rises late and sets early, our bodies often crave extra sleep and take longer to get into gear. At this time of year, early- and late-shift workers might also benefit from short walks outdoors and the use of a light box before they start work. It is advisable to eat light, easily digestible meals and drink enough fluids. Workers should avoid drinking gallons of coffee, instead moderating their intake, and if possible exercise their muscles every now and again to boost circulation.

All these measures will help workers get a good night’s sleep even on a shift schedule.