How shift workers can improve their sleep and health

A new Australian study has revealed that shift workers prioritize sleep over diet and exercise, which can have negative consequences for their health and well-being. The study, conducted by researchers from Monash University and the University of South Australia, surveyed more than 7,600 workers from various occupations and found that shift workers had lower physical activity and sleep scores than non-shift workers. The study also suggested some strategies to help shift workers improve their sleep and health.

One of the main challenges that shift workers face is the disruption of their natural circadian rhythm, which is the internal body clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Working at night or rotating shifts can interfere with the production of melatonin, the hormone that signals the body to sleep, and cortisol, the hormone that stimulates alertness. This can lead to insomnia, daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and impaired performance.

How shift workers can improve their sleep and health
How shift workers can improve their sleep and health

Shift work can also affect the metabolism, the process of converting food into energy. A study from 2014 found that sleeping during the day burns fewer calories than sleeping at night, which can increase the risk of obesity and related diseases. Another study from 2023 found that shift workers eat more and face higher illness risk than day workers, due to irregular eating patterns and poor food choices.

Shift work can increase the risk of chronic diseases

Shift work has been associated with an increased risk of various chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and all-cause mortality. These diseases can be caused by a combination of factors, such as disrupted circadian rhythm, poor sleep quality, reduced physical activity, unhealthy diet, stress, and social isolation.

Shift work can also affect the mental health of workers, as they may experience mood disorders, anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline. Shift work can also impair the immune system, making workers more susceptible to infections and inflammation.

Shift work can be managed with some strategies

The researchers of the Australian study have compiled 18 guidelines to help shift workers improve their sleep and health, based on the evidence from 50 international sleep and shift work experts. Some of the guidelines are:

  • Use a sleep schedule and a bedtime routine to establish a regular sleep pattern
  • Only use the bed for sleeping and intimacy, and avoid using electronic devices or watching TV in bed
  • Create a comfortable sleep environment, with dark curtains, earplugs, and a fan or air conditioner
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine close to bedtime, as they can interfere with sleep quality and quantity
  • Exercise regularly, but not too close to bedtime, as it can help with mood, energy, and weight management
  • Nap strategically, for no longer than 20 minutes, and avoid napping too close to bedtime
  • Expose yourself to bright natural light during the day and avoid bright light at night, to help synchronize your circadian rhythm
  • Plan your transition days, when you switch from night to day shifts or vice versa, and adjust your sleep and activity accordingly
  • Seek professional help if you have persistent or severe sleep problems, such as insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless legs syndrome

The researchers hope that these guidelines can help shift workers achieve better sleep and health outcomes, and reduce the negative impacts of shift work on their well-being.

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