Humans are programmed by nature to work by day. The nine to five shift by far is the most ideal arrangement. But sometimes work commitments don’t allow this. Professionals who work round the clock such as nurses, policemen and firefighters may find that they have to adjust their body clock to shifting schedules. This isn’t a pleasant experience because it doesn’t only affect our biology but our personal lives as well. Our time schedule is suddenly different from those of friends, family and loved ones and we suddenly have less time for them due to time constraints related to work. It can also take its toll on work related performance. Studies show that sleepiness caused by shifting schedules affects attention, concentration, reaction time, memory and mood. This can be harmful on the job because accidents may occur due to negligence and this will affect not only us but the community as well.
Our bodies follow the circadian rhythm which follows a 24 hour cycle. Sleep/wake patterns are triggered by light and darkness in the environment. Physical, mental and behavioral patterns follow these changes.
In order to cope with going against the clock, night shifters should adopt these habits to maintain their health.
Strict Sleep Schedule
Research shows that adherence to a strict sleep schedule in a dark room can help night shifters have better cognitive functioning during work. The sleep pattern helps your body clock align with the new sleeping pattern. Wearing dark sunglasses outside during the daytime also helps the body adapt to the new pattern.
Bright Light Therapy
Participants in the research were also exposed to bright light therapy. Light therapy can help an individual reset their clock. Safe but intense exposure to bright light can affect the body clock the way sunlight does. In the experiment participants were exposed to five 15-minute intermittent bright light pulses from a light box once per hour during the night shift.
Napping can be helpful when adjusting to the night shift. Night shifters sleep less than the recommended hours and napping fills this gap. Restorative napping can also be helpful during breaks or lunch hours to restore mental alertness and vigilance. A nap of 15-20 minutes is enough to feel fully rested and improve job performance.
A stimulant such as caffeine is an easy fix to keep awake during the odd hours. However, too much caffeine causes muscle tremors, irritability and fast heartbeat among others. How much is too much? According to the Mayo clinic 400 mg is enough for a healthy adult. That’s roughly the caffeine in 4 cups of brewed coffee.
Eating is another problem for night shifters. Often, they eat too little or poorly. Three well spaced meals during the day can help them get the proper nourishment they need on the job. Meals also serve as time cues for the body clock. These cues help the body adjust when it is time to sleep. Opt for a well balance meal and avoid eating too much before bedtime. Try to avoid alcohol.
Adjusting to night shifts and shifting schedules is a challenge for work and personal time. The poor correlation of a disrupted circadian rhythm to overall health can be altered by adopting habits that can improve performance even on a night shift. As an addition, the workplace itself should know the needs of night shifters and adjust their facilities as necessary to have their employees at optimum health.