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Shift work
Jet lag
Shift work
Shift work and sleep
The main problem resulting from shift work is disturbed sleep. People who work night shifts and sleep during the day, have an average sleep duration of 1 – 4 hours less than they would have during night sleep. Moreover, their sleep architecture is disturbed. Sleepiness during working ‘day’, resulting from the disturbed sleep pattern can lead to decreased concentration, mistakes, and accidents during working hours - with possibly disastrous consequences. Other common complaints include stomach and intestines problems. Our biological clock regulates the periods of the 24h-day that the various body functions are more or less active. If our eating behavior does not correspond to the time slots that our stomach and intestines are active, this can lead to health problems.

Fast rotation shift work schemes (3-4 days) are better than slow rotation schemes (more than 5 days). Our body seems to get used to a new scheme after 5 days, which makes it harder to get used to another scheme. Furthermore, time schemes rotating with the clock (e.g. evening shift - night shift - morning shift) are better than schemes rotating against the clock.

Shift work and age
As we get older, our biological clock becomes less flexible. As a consequence, we will have increasingly more problems working shifts as we get older. Above the age of 55 working shifts is rare.

Tips for shift workers
At home:
  • A nap before work may help to stay awake during night shifts.
  • Try to go to bed early the night before an early morning shift.
  • If you have to sleep during the day, keep your sleeping room dark. Consider using a sleeping mask to cover your eyes and using ear plugs to reduce noise.
  • Avoid heavy meals before going to sleep. Avoid eating 30 minutes before going to sleep. However, a cup of warm milk is fine.
  • Avoid drinking caffeine 4-5 hours before going to sleep.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol 2 hours before going to sleep. A small amount of alcohol can make you feel sleepy, but at the same time alcohol can disturb your sleep.
  • Try to reach suitable agreements with your family to reduce disturbance during the day.
  • Try to find a suitable period during the day to spend time with your family.

During work:
  • Eat light and healthy food during shifts.
  • Take care of proper illumination.
  • Monotonous work increases sleepiness. Altering background noise may help to stay awake.
  • Take short breaks during the shifts and move around.
  • If possible, talk to your colleagues during shifts. That way you can help each other to stay awake.
  • Wear sunglasses when driving home in the morning. Drive very carefully. Listen to people talking on the radio.

Shift work syndrome
Many people get fairly used to life as a shift worker. Some people do however have major problems adjusting to the changing shifts. The sleeping problems resulting from this maladaptation may lead to dangerous situations. Also, an overall malaise is often present. A behavioral therapy focused on this specific problem may help to adjust to working in shifts.
Jet lag
The biological clock in our brain regulates the 24-h rhythm, also called circadian rhythm, of our body functions. It causes our body temperature, for instance, to be lower in the morning than in the evening. The 24-h rhythm also causes us to become sleepy at a certain time. An important factor keeping the biological clock synchronized to the time cycles in the natural environment is daylight.

As we travel to another time zone, our clock slowly adjusts to the new time. The bigger the time difference, the longer it takes for the clock to adjust. During that period, the clock may signal that it is time to sleep, while it is still noon at your destination, and you have to fight against sleep. If you travel the other way, you may still feel wide awake in the middle of the night.

How to deal with jet lag - tips:
  • Try to shift your bed times a few days before traveling: go to bed earlier when traveling to the west and later when traveling to the east.
  • Try to book a flight arriving in the evening. Then, stay awake until 10 pm local time.
  • Change the time on your watch during the flight.
  • Avoid heavy meals after arrival.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine 3 hours before bedtime during your stay.
  • Avoid sports 3 hours before bedtime.
  • Expose yourself as much as possible to daylight. Even if the sun is not shining, the light helps your biological clock to adjust to the local time.

More information?
Here, you can read more about cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. Also, check out our information on sleep disorders and sleep and women.