Shift Work Sleep Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, And Treatments

shift work disorder

In this article, we’ll discuss the symptoms, causes, and possible treatment options for Shift Work Sleep Disorder.

What Is Shift Work Disorder?

Sleep work sleep disorder (SWSD) is prevalent in individuals who work during unconventional hours like graveyard shifts, early morning shifts, or rotating shifts. SWSD can be an ongoing problem that affects your everyday life. Individuals who possess this disorder have excessive sleepiness and fatigue.

The challenge faced by these individuals is to stay awake against the biological clock. People who face this challenge are often found fighting their bodies ’ natural rhythm to try and stay awake, especially during the day. This is followed by sleepiness and tiredness when their body is expected to stay alert. 

Shift Work Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, And Treatments

1. Symptoms

The following symptoms occurring in individuals indicate that they are victims of Shift Work Sleep Disorder:

  • Excessive sleepiness at times when one is expected to be awake
  • Fatigue or drowsiness with low energy levels
  • Inadequate sleep where one is not completely refreshed
  • Inability to fall asleep when needed and trouble waking up despite sufficient hours of sleep
  • Wearing sunglasses while leaving work to avoid exposure to the sun. This also prevents the “daytime clock” from activating.
  • Difficulty concentrating and staying awake at school or work
  • Depression and irritability
  • Trouble with relationships due to less interest caused by constant drowsiness

2. Causes

People with SWSD work at odd hours and not in natural light. For instance, an individual who has started working in a graveyard shift will gradually try to adapt to the changed sleeping pattern. Over a period of time, his/her body starts witnessing hormonal adjustments that affect the body in different ways. 

  • Individuals with these odd work hours experience frequent headaches, insomnia, and struggle to focus on the task in hand. Due to odd work hours, these individuals are less efficient and witness a drop in their productivity. Further, there is always a risk of errors made at the work being performed. 
  • With time more serious health complications develop in the body. Insufficient sleep gradually leads to a change in metabolism and appetite. Individuals with irregular sleep patterns have poor eating habits and a poor diet which eventually leads to an increased risk of metabolic problems. There is a higher probability of catching cardiovascular diseases, cancer, obesity, and gastrointestinal problems too.
  • Research has indicated women above 20 years of age who work night shifts are more prone to Type 2 diabetes. Employees who work in shifts have an increased risk of heart diseases. Further, employees working in shifts develop hormonal imbalance leading to abdominal obesity. 
  • Working in shifts reduces the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin which makes employees hungrier than usual. Irregular eating patterns trigger digestive problems. These can be identified by heartburn and other gastric irritation symptoms. 
  • Due to disrupted sleep patterns, different chemicals are released in the body which affects the mental wellbeing of the individual. Individuals with this disorder soon go through social issues and often feel out of place in a public environment. Thus, SWSD also leads to an increased risk of mental health problems such as depression.

3. Treatment

  • SWSD requires observation for a minimum period of 15 days to begin any treatment. The consulting doctor typically would require the individual to maintain a diary to understand the sleep patterns of the individual. Further, the difficulties faced by the individual in sleeping times and duration. Any medical conditions, past or present, should be highlighted by the individual.
  • To begin with, conditions such as narcolepsy and obstructive sleep apnea must be completely ruled out. Hypnotics and sedatives must be used with proper prescription and for a limited period of time. These include zolpidem (Ambien) and Eszopiclone (Lunesta). Modafinil (Provigil), a wake-promoting drug approved by the U.S Food & Drug Administration that has shown an improvement in sleep patterns and reduced sleepiness in individuals.
  • In more serious cases, doctors would prefer the individual to get admitted to a clinic to monitor sleep patterns. For best results, monitoring heart rate, sleep quality, instances of sleep disturbances, and breathing, is the key to deciding the best treatment option.

Necessary Lifestyle Changes

  • Maintain regular sleeping pattern, including non-working days
  • Restrict caffeine intake four hours before bedtime
  • A healthy nutritious diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • For individuals working in graveyard shifts, since sleep timings would be in the day, a dark sleeping environment should be maintained to get sound sleep
  • A nap before the odd working hours is helpful too
  • Avoid any contact with a mobile phone or laptop one hour before going to bed

There are various drugs that improve sleep and in effect will remove eradicate drowsiness during work hours. However, these drugs should not be used for prolonged periods.

Also, one must begin using them only after proper consultation and guidance from a doctor. Without a proper prescription, one might soon begin abusing the drug because of its euphoric effects and would require it every time to fall asleep. 

One must not take irregular sleep patterns lightly as SWSD rapidly causes more issues for our physical and mental well-being. Timely treatment is key to avoid developing health concerns which have to be monitored consistently.

Individuals working at odd hours often are tasked with protecting and looking out their colleagues, being agile, and making quick decisions. However, individuals possessing the disorder will not be in the best position to handle the situation.

For example – a delayed decision made at sea by the crew could be fatal for all passengers.

Additionally, working against the body requires minimum hours of sleep as the individual is expected to witness a dip in alertness. People often misjudge their sleepiness at odd hour shifts and believe they are capable of handling the tasks. This leads to making poor decisions.

It is safe to conclude that sleep hygiene must be maintained by all to lead a healthy lifestyle. Shift work sleep disorder has serious implications with time and must not be ignored. The sooner it is treated, the better, as we have seen its consequences above.

Before complications arise in our body, one must get the disorder studied, observed, and treated by a doctor. A fixed and regular sleeping pattern will save the trouble Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) brings to an individual.