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Getting high-quality sleep on a consistent basis is hard enough as it is, but when you toss irregular working schedules (shift work) into the mix, things get even more complicated. Here’s what you need to know about how to reset your sleep cycle.
Studies show that shift workers get upwards of four fewer hours of sleep than the average person due to disrupted melatonin production. (1) The sleep loss primarily impacts stage 2 (important for the consolidation of memories) (2) and REM sleep, which also benefits cognitive functions like memory consolidation, creativity, and learning). (3-4) Deep sleep stage 3 is generally unaffected. (5)
Sleep disruptions are typically worse for those who have rotating shifts (versus consistently working the same shifts) since this can make it harder to find a set point for the circadian rhythm and homeostatic sleep drive (the “pressure” to sleep). These two systems seek an equilibrium, known as homeostasis, ideally every 24 hours, and the variation in schedule can make this more challenging, resulting in feelings of perpetual jet lag as your body clock is thrown off.
As the name suggests, Shift Work Sleep Disorder, results from working “atypical shifts,” meaning outside of the typical 9am to 5pm schedule. Those suffering from SWSD experience symptoms (6) that interfere with their day-to-day functioning and well-being, including:
- Trouble sleeping
- Excessive sleepiness and fatigue
- Anxiety and depression resulting from ongoing poor sleep
1. Consider supplementing with melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain, then released into the bloodstream. Quantities naturally increase as the sun goes down and decrease during daytime hours and exposure to bright light, thus regulating the sleep-wake cycle (aka circadian rhythm).
When it’s produced within our bodies, it goes by the name endogenous melatonin; however, some also choose to supplement their natural levels as a way to effectively adjust and regulate their body's internal clock—especially shift workers whose natural production of melatonin is disrupted.
However, keep in mind that, while melatonin is widely used, this natural sleep aid is not for everyone. Ruchir Patel, MD, MB, BCh, FACP, a fellowship-trained sleep medicine specialist on Proper’s Scientific & Medical Advisory Board has found over the last 10+ years in his sleep medicine clinic that about 50% of patients actually note a positive response from melatonin.
- The Proper Guide To Melatonin: Uses, Types, Side Effects, + More
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2. Try a white noise machine
Sound machines and white noise machines—which drown out ambient noises, snoring included—are recommended to help reduce sleep onset latency (amount of time it takes to fall asleep), improve sleep quality, and decrease the frequency of awakenings. One study (7) found that broadband sound administration reduced sleep onset latency by 38% compared to normal environmental noise, suggesting that it may be helpful to minimize insomnia symptoms and improve overall health for night shift workers.
3. Consider blackout curtains/blackout blinds
Kelly O’Brien, NBC-HWC, one of Proper’s sleep coaches, advises blackout curtains to create a dark atmosphere during the day.
“I worked with a client who also found that throwing open the curtains immediately upon waking was helpful to cue their circadian rhythm” (assuming it's light out upon waking).
4. Wear ear plugs
If you’re sleeping during the day, there may be noise either inside your home or outside that could disrupt your sleep. Ear plugs are a quick and easy solution—we recommend ones made with silicone, which tend to be noise-canceling. You can find them at most drugstores.
5. Use wrap-around sunglasses + a sleep mask
The light receptors in the eyes are linked to the time-keeper in the brain that regulates our sleep schedule and sleep patterns. Bright light confuses this signal and may keep us awake when we’re exposed to it within 1-2 hours of bedtime. That’s why Lauren Hoogs, NBC-HWC, one of Proper’s sleep coaches, recommends wearing not only an eye mask when you’re sleeping but also wrap-around sunglasses for when you get off your night shift and it’s still light out.
“The darker you can keep it in transition, the more you are supporting your body’s natural sleep processes,” she explains.
6. Wear blue light blocking glasses
Blue light from smartphones and computers triggers the same light receptors in the eyes that bright light does, but because it’s difficult to avoid, we recommend blue light blocking glasses.
In a 2017 study, (8) researchers found that lenses filtering blue light almost doubled nighttime melatonin levels and reduced awakenings.
Our go-to brand at Proper is Felix Gray which, unlike other blue light glasses, don't distort color—the blue-reflective coating is so subtle that it’s virtually unnoticeable. They also apply AR and VR protection for each lens and, for what it’s worth, are stylish too!
7. Try shifting your eating schedule
Although everyone is different, the best practice is to refrain from eating a large meal within three hours of bedtime so you don’t engage the digestive system to work on processing the meal, spike your blood sugar levels, or cause bloating/digestion. If you find yourself at work hungry within that window, all hope is not lost. Because contrary to older perspectives on late-night eating—that it should be limited or avoided at all costs—newer research (9-12) shows that this is not the case across the board and that negative outcomes of pre-bedtime eating can be avoided for certain groups when the food isn’t a large meal but rather:
- Small quantity (~150 kcals)
It’s best to avoid acidic foods as well as large meals that are high-carb, fried, sugary, and/or spicy.
8. Be smart about the timing of your coffee consumption
Kelly has worked with Proper coaching clients to strategically time their caffeine consumption (and amount) to support the energy dip that might happen when optimal functioning is needed at work.
In order to do this, it’s important to understand how long coffee stays in your system and how it impacts sleep.
The half-life of a cup of coffee is 5-6 hours (or longer depending on how fast you metabolize it). Sensitivities vary, but because it’s a stimulant, it may cause difficulties in the onset of sleep if it’s still in the body’s system come bedtime.
While it's long been understood that caffeine promotes wakefulness and disrupts sleep, new research is emerging on just how impactful caffeine is on the human's internal clock, otherwise known as the circadian rhythm. This system is controlled by two factors:
1. Proteins produced in the digestive system based on the timing of meals
2. Hormones produced by the endocrine system based on energy expenditure
Together, the proteins and hormones control our circadian pacemaker, which shoots out signals from the hypothalamus area of the bran—the suprachiasmatic nucleus (or SCN), to be exact. SCN is sensitive to social activity, temperature, and exercise, but nothing is as important as light. That's why circadian rhythms are so closely linked to day and night—and as we now know, caffeine.
In a 49-day study, (5) the consumption of caffeine equivalent to that in a double espresso consumed three hours before bedtime led to a phase delay of the circadian melatonin rhythm by approximately 40 minutes, which is particularly impactful for those who work night shifts because their melatonin rhythm is already disrupted.
9. Nap strategically
Napping during the day decreases the "hunger" for shut-eye come nighttime and may not be best if you have trouble falling asleep at night or suffer from insomnia. That being said, not everyone's situation is the same. Many shift workers have to nap to help them through the remainder of the day, so if you must, consider if it's possible to decrease the duration to get enough sleep at night. Generally speaking, short naps don't affect nighttime sleep quality for most.
“Short naps or rests can provide a necessary energy boost or reset to ensure that tasks can be completed with the necessary clarity,” explains Kelly.
10. Avoid over-the-counter sleeping pills with antihistamines
Although that knocked-out feeling may lead some to believe that an OTC drug is working, science says otherwise. A Consumer Reports study found that most OTC sleep aids only increase total sleep duration by 20-30 minutes. (13) At face value, that sounds like a good thing (who wouldn’t want 30 more minutes of shut-eye after a night shift?), but when you dig deeper, you’ll find that sleep time is only part of the story. The quality of your sleep—the amount of deep and REM sleep—matters, too. When you use OTC sleep aids with antihistamines, sleep quality suffers.
The reason: acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter plays a critical role in rapid eye movement sleep, otherwise known as REM. (14) Because antihistamines block acetylcholine, REM sleep suffers, which is one reason why upwards of 40% of people taking OTC sleep aids report feelings of fogginess or drowsiness the following morning. (12)