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Sleep-Wake Cycle: A Guide for Shift Work

The 24-hour cycle on earth defines a day, dictating your internal body clock and oscillating from wakefulness to sleep and waking up again. The time of night or day (circadian system) and how long you’ve been up (homeostatic system) are two main factors that drive your body to sleep. The circadian and homeostatic systems act independently, affecting every organ, tissue, and cell in your body.

The circadian system is located in your brain and other organs throughout the body and tells you when it’s time to sleep. It works collaboratively with specific environmental cues, such as darkness and light, to help determine when to feel drowsy and awake.

However, interruptions such as caffeine intake and exposure to artificial light can disrupt this cycle by giving the body false cues of wakefulness. On the other hand, using blue light filters for your phone and computer ensures you feel sleepy when it’s the right time. This guide will help understand the sleep-wake cycle and how shift workers can manage it.

Every Body Clock is Unique

The natural circadian rhythm in most people is longer than 24 hours. For instance, some people stay up late naturally, and some wake up early. Teens usually prefer going late to bed and sleeping longer in the morning. Adults, on the other hand, are likely to go to bed early and wake up early as the timing and rhythm of the body clock declines with age.

Your brain cells (neurons) that promote sleep deteriorate as you age. Moreover, conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease also result in rapid neuron degeneration over the years. Due to these reasons, adults may find it difficult to sleep and sleep for longer periods.

Other factors like reduced physical activity and spending less time outdoors also affect your circadian rhythm.

The Need for Sleep

Your body’s need for sleep increases as you stay awake longer than usual. Your body’s biological need for sleep is controlled by the homeostasis system, which maintains your internal body temperature.

The need for sleep is associated with a compound known as adenosine. While you’re awake, adenosine levels in your body begin to rise, signaling sleep. However, certain drugs and caffeine block adenosine and interrupt this process.

Moreover, when your brain’s arousal system is activated, you’re likely to stay awake for longer people. For instance, shift workers with an uncertain sleep and wake cycle and students having late-night study sessions are more likely to have longer periods of wakefulness. Your homeostatic system, in normal conditions, will increase the period of ensuing sleep to respond to the loss of sleep.

Using the phone in bed

Shift Workers and Their Schedules

Work schedule hours fall between 7 am to 6 pm, and a schedule other than these hours is considered shift work. This schedule may comprise split or rotating shifts, fixed hours, or even irregular work times. The Bureau of Labor Statistics demonstrates that nearly 16% of wage and full-time salary workers in the country work non-daytime shifts.

Most employees have been forced to opt for shift work in the past few months because of the pandemic. Fitness trainers, hairdressers, retail and sales staff, food servers, warehouse, manufacturing, and transportation workers, firefighters, and police officers are some of the common occupations requiring shift work.

How is Shift Work Demanding?

Shift workers are less likely to get a good night’s sleep as they work rotating, night, and early morning shifts. Over time, they’re prone to developing a shift work disorder, characterized by insomnia when they try to sleep and tiredness at work. In addition to causing physical complications and cognitive impairments, this condition also affects their occupational performance, making them more prone to involving in accidents and errors.

Waking up alert and getting a good rest at night is essential for shift workers, regardless of their profession. Most of them can maintain their sleep-wake cycle by creating a proper bedroom environment and developing a steady sleep schedule.

Setting a Sleep Schedule for Night Work

Sleep consistency is essential for employees that work night shift schedules. For instance, if you’re up at 6 pm for the night shift and go to sleep at 9 am after reaching home, then you should maintain this sleep-wake cycle on the days off.

Make sure your roommates or family members understand the importance of your sleep time so that you can have an undisrupted sleep. Noise and light exposure may make it difficult for you to sleep throughout the day. Sleeping with an eye mask, drawing the shades in your room, and using a blue light screen protector for your phone will help you sleep easily.

Some shift workers are likely to stay up for a while after getting home from work rather than going to bed immediately. When they wake up, they’ll be closer to the time of their next shift. Some night-shift workers follow a split-nap schedule that includes napping for some hours in the morning after getting home and then sleeping during the hours close to the beginning of their next shift.

A shift worker

Sleeping Tips for Shift Workers

Shift workers can take a hot shower or involve in a relaxing activity such as meditation before going to bed. They’re recommended to avoid alcohol consumption before bedtime as it causes sleep disruptions. Though alcohol is sedative and can help you fall asleep quickly, you experience fragmented sleep as the body breaks it down.

Many shift workers also take melatonin supplements which help them fall asleep during the day. However, you should seek professional advice from a licensed physician before taking any supplements, as they can affect your sleep-wake cycles.

Implementing the right sleep and wake system requires trial and error. You can have a healthy routine if you get enough sleep within 24 hours. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need 7-9 hours of sleep every day, while older adults need less.  

Clear Your Head

According to the regular sleep-wake cycle, you sleep at night and stay active throughout the day. But this can place a mental barrier between sleep and shift workers. If you’re a shift worker, lack of sleep can frustrate you.

According to sleep professionals, you should be clear-headed when you go to bed, as overthinking at bedtime can interfere with your sleep. Consider keeping a journal and making an everyday to-do list. A 2018 study indicates that making a to-do list before bedtime for 5 minutes helps you sleep better, whereas journaling about your activities when you’re up can lead to sleep disturbances.  

A woman drawing the curtain

Keep Your Room Dark

Studies indicate that exposure to light in a bedroom reduces the production of melatonin—a sleep-inducing hormone. Dark and light cycles during the day control your body clock. For instance, bright light outside wakes you up every morning.

However, night shift workers must learn to sleep when the sun is up. Darkness is the key to good sleep, so you can buy blackout curtains that block sunlight. Moreover, while heading home from work when the sun is out, wear glasses to reduce light exposure.

Keep a Consistent Bedtime on Your Days Off

Though you may be tempted to stay up on your days off, stick to your routine to compensate for sleep loss, especially if you’ve worked overtime or you’re tired. Altering bedtime on days off can worsen your sleep patterns.

If you’re a shift worker, you’re more likely to experience social jet lag, so staying up to socialize can make you more tired.

Use a Blue Light Filter for Your Phone and Computer Screen

Blue light from your phone, computer, and other gadgets may have a detrimental effect on your sensory neurons and reduce melatonin production. To prevent this damage, the blue light filter is specifically designed to reduce the amount of blue light displayed on a screen. This filter helps you sleep better by minimizing eye strain and ensures that your eyes don’t feel tired.  

Blue light protector

Harmful Effects of Blue Light

Poor sleep is often associated with depression, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Using electronics and artificial lighting before going to bed may disrupt your sleep throughout the night. That’s because the light emitted by these devices features a blue wavelength, tricking your brain into thinking that it’s daytime. Blue light also interferes with your regular sleep-wake cycles as it stimulates the sensors in the eyes that send signals to the internal clock of the brain.

White light and sunlight are made up of various types of wavelengths, each comprising blue light. Exposure to blue light from the sun during the day helps you stay active and alert while improving mood and performance. However, electronic devices such as phones and computers excessively produce blue light disrupting your internal clock when exposed during the evening.  

Using laptops and phones at night can impair your memory and leave you distracted the next day. A poor night’s sleep also makes it harder to focus on your day-to-day activities at work and may even lead to neurotoxin buildup—a condition that occurs when neuro-toxicants alter normal activities of a nervous system.

Blue light protector

How Blue Light Screen Protector Helps you Sleep Better

A blue light screen protector is an adhesive film attached to a screen to prevent eye strain and sleep deprivation. It effectively blocks the blue rays through absorption and transforms them into less harmful light. That’s how it prevents visual fatigue, ocular damage, as well as blurred glare and vision.

As blue light is filtered, it prevents vision impairment and the inability to concentrate at work. The anti-blue light glass is easy to install and gives a bubble-free surface without harming the surface of your device.

How to Install Anti-Blue Light Protector

The first step is to de-smear the screen of your device with a wet cloth and then with it with a dry one. Next, tear off the film and align the cutouts along the screen’s edges while slowly applying it to the surface.

As you press your finger on the middle part, the film will automatically adhere to the screen slowly. You can use a cloth to squeeze out any air bubbles between the film and the screen.

Blue-Light Blocking Glasses

According to studies, blue-light-blocking glasses improve sleep, especially for shift workers and individuals experiencing jet lag, sleep-phase disorder, and insomnia. These glasses reduce the activation of ipRGCs (intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells) which are quite sensitive to blue light and significantly contribute to the circadian regulation in your body.

Are you a shift worker trying to improve and maintain a proper sleep routine? Consider limiting your exposure to electronic devices in the evening. You can also use warm-colored lights in your home, follow good sleep hygiene, wear anti-blue light glasses, and install a blue light protector on your phone and computer to ensure good sleep after work.  

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