Shift Work Sleep Disorder or SWSD

As you may have guessed, people who suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder (also known as SWSD) are individuals who work shift work. In the United States alone, it's estimated that this sleeping disorder affects about one quarter of the 20 million or so people who work shift work. People who are employed in jobs that require shift work are numerous. They range from people who work in the emergency services fields like police, firefighters and EMTs to people in industries such as mining, manufacturing and transportation. Any industry that operates around the clock will have people who are doing shift work - and one quarter of them will experience shift work sleep disorder.

Your circadian rhythm is your body's natural cycle - telling you to get up when it's light outside and to go to bed when it gets dark. People who work shift jobs force their bodies to operate outside of their natural circadian rhythm. No matter how long they work night shifts or bounce back and forth between nights and days, their circadian rhythm never becomes completed adjusted to the hours.

That's because sunlight is one of the signals the body uses to let it know that it's time to wake up and be awake. A person suffering from shift work sleep disorder subjects their bodies to continuous circadian disruption.

If you happen to suffer from shift work sleep disorder the first thing you should realize is the importance of sleep in your life.

Here are some tips on how to deal with shift work sleep disorder:

  • Don't downplay the signs when your body is telling you it's time for a nap. If you are at work and feel the need to nap, take a 20 minute break and find some place to lay your head down. You'll function better when you wake up and you'll be less prone to accidents.
  • If you work nights, you'll want to avoid sunlight as much as possible on your way home. Wear dark sunglasses and avoid being in the sun any longer than you have to. If you need to get groceries or gas, get it after you wake up rather than on your way home from work. The more time you spend out in the sun or in the presence of direct light, the more likely you are to have trouble sleeping when you arrive home.
  • Another way to cope with shift work sleep disorder is to get into a sleep routine. Develop a strategy where you have a pre-bedtime routine that you follow and you always end up going to bed at the same time. You'll want to keep this same routine even when you're not working - there's nothing worse for your body than to go back and forth from daytime sleeping to nighttime sleeping each week or weekend.
  • Ensure that your family and friends take your sleep time seriously and don't wake you unless there's an emergency. Since people with shift work sleep disorder are chronically sleep deprived, you'll need to get good quality sleep at every opportunity.
  • Make sure that your bedroom is free from any of the daytime noises of the house and / or the outside world. Buy earplugs if necessary.
  • Make your bedroom as dark as you can possibly get it. This includes blocking light from the outside world as well as any light coming from the rest of the house. If sunlight is still getting through your bedroom curtains, invest in light blocking curtains.
  • Avoid drinking too much caffeine. Have a cup or two when you first wake up by try not to have anymore than that. Caffeine stays in your system for a long time and can seriously disrupt your already disrupted sleep patterns. Give yourself a cut off time for caffeine and then stick to only juice, water or decaffeinated tea after that.

There are five stages in a normal sleep cycle; each lasting about ninety minutes. In stages 1 and 2 you fall into a light sleep, and are easily awakened. In stages 3 and 4 you fall into a deeper and more restful sleep, with slower, more even breathing. Stages 3 and 4 can be likened to refilling your gas tank, or refueling your body by replacing spent calories. Stage 5 is when your brain gets active and dreams occur.

Many people who suffer from shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) turn to sleeping pills to help them get to sleep. You should avoid this temptation at all costs. Sleeping pills have side effects and can develop into an addiction as well as bringing on a host of other health issues in the future.

If you've tried everything and you still operate like a zombie day in and day out, it may be time to look for another job or to approach your boss and ask about a more 'normal' schedule.