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Sleep and shift work

Updated: Jun 22


Sleep is one of the most important steps to maintaining good health. A good night's sleep boosts energy, makes us more alert and increases our ability to perform our everyday functions.


Adequate rest improves our overall health and wellbeing. While we sleep, our body is performing essential functions to recover and repair, maintain cardiac function and improve metabolism. Brain function is also positively affected by sleep, which is known to improve memory, mood and the ability to retain new information.


Because so many essential healing functions occur during sleep, not getting the recommended 7-9 hours each night can have lasting effects on the body and mind.



Sleep and shift work

The irregularity and unusual hours of shift work can cause disruptions to sleep patterns, which often makes it difficult to maintain a sustainable sleep schedule.


Because of this, many workers develop Shift Work Sleep Disorder throughout their career. It particularly affects those who work nights, early mornings or irregular rotating shifts, which leaves nurses at high risk.



Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) or Shift Work Disorder is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder characterised by an irregular sleep-wake cycle that ultimately disrupts the quality of life of an individual.


Circadian rhythms control your sleep-wake patterns and are influenced by external factors, including natural light and darkness. Your brain draws signals from sunlight to release hormones that alter your body temperature and regulate your metabolism. Signals from sunlight tell the brain to produce hormones to keep you feeling alert, while a lack of sunlight prompts the production of the melatonin hormone, which causes you to relax and go to sleep.


If your lifestyle does not align with your circadian rhythm, your body stops releasing the correct hormones for your schedule. This may result in insomnia and extreme fatigue when awake, and the inability to sleep ultimately disrupts the body's ability to perform the functions it needs to stay healthy. As a result, levels of hunger, body temperature, sleepiness, ability to focus and hormone regulation are affected.


Shift Work Sleep Disorder can also lead to irritability, a higher risk of depression, poor work performance and higher accident risk. These can be especially serious for shift workers such as doctors, nurses, ambulance, firemen and police officers, for whom focus and a high work performance is essential.


SWSD has also been found to worsen underlying digestive, metabolic, reproductive and cardiovascular issues, as the body is not given an adequate amount of sleep to rest, recover and perform the necessary processes to keep the body functioning.



Getting enough sleep

It is important to understand that working shifts puts you at risk of developing sleep disorders, and to take action to ensure you are getting an adequate amount of rest despite your lifestyle.


Here are some ways to maintain a healthy amount of sleep.

  1. Create a regular sleep schedule that works for you - and stick to it whether you're working or not

  2. Maintain a healthy balanced diet full of fruit, vegetables and protein to improve your quality of sleep

  3. Create a sleep environment that works for you - reduce any light and noise that may prevent you from falling asleep

  4. Limit caffeine and alcohol before you plan on sleeping

  5. Keep rituals before bed, regardless of what time you are going to sleep




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