The circadian clock is built into our genes. Having a job and working nights is a violation of everything natural. Many otherwise tough people have tried to do it and failed. They found it too challenging mentally, physically, and socially. When the night shift people are coming, the day shift people are going—Vice versa.
It’s like hanging from monkey bars by your feet for days. Being up all night all the time is all wrong—all of it.
Walk your street, and I’ll walk mine.
And should we meet? Would you spare me some time?
Cause you should see my world
Meet my kind before you judge our minds.
Sleep your sleep, I’m awake and alive.
I keep late hours, your nine to five.
So I would like you to know
I need the quiet hours to create in this world of mine
I’d like you to know at four in the morning
Things are coming mine, all I’ve seen, all I’ve done
And those I hope to find
I’d like to remind you at four in the morning
My world is very still
The air is fresh under diamond skies makes me glad to be alive.
In writing “Blue Collar,” above, and “Stayed Awake All Night,” Bachman Turner Overdrive shows they get it. They understand. The air is fresh under star-filled skies in the middle of the night. For most of the year, in much of the United States, the middle of the night is the only time good time to be outside. It’s too hot otherwise.
If you have what it takes, if you have a system and the discipline to use a system to ensure you’re at peak mental and physical power during the shift, working nights can be rewarding. It can help your career. It can help you enjoy a bigger paycheck. In many cases, the work is easier than the day shift.
The night shift is more relaxed, usually. Your coworkers, more fun. Management is nowhere to be seen. What’s the hard part is the toll it takes on your body.
The toll can be severe. Working nights can be hard on your health, especially if you work rotating night shifts.
However, if you get enough quality sleep and mitigate the stresses on your body, you could love working nights for the benefits. It’s that simple.
Just be aware there’s a toll the night shift exacts on your body. The key is to mitigate the damage. Studies have shown working the night shift increases the risk of cancer. Night-shift workers have heart attacks at a higher rate. They develop depression, suffer on-the-job injuries, obesity, and diabetes at greater rates.
The current thought is that the night shift affects the excretion of the melatonin hormone by your pineal gland. This makes it harder to fall asleep at night at the regular time. It also interferes with Vitamin D production, which is essential for the metabolism of calcium and other nutrients. You will suffer these effects, especially if you do it for a long time. A good system will ensure you mitigate the effects of working nights.
Some people you know won’t get the idea you have to sleep like anyone else. The rest of the world isn’t going to conform to your biological needs. There are places to go, things to do, and people to see even when you’re working. You’re going to be working, making critical decisions on less sleep than other people. Some people are going to be able to adjust to working nights; some won’t. It’s definitely not for everyone either because of their biological demands or because of their environment. If the people you live with for one reason or another can’t or won’t respect your need to sleep during the day, there’s not much you can do about it. If you’re responsible for answering the phone, answering the door, making dinner, or have to sleep in a room with people going in and out of it all the time, you’re not going to be successful at working nights on a long term basis.
It’s best to purposefully adopt a series of practices to allow yourself to sleep during the daytime.
Day Sleepers’ Regimen
- Wear earplugs and an eyeshade. Block any natural light forcing its way into your sleep chamber. Darken your room with heavy curtains. Try to sleep in a quiet area, but use the earplugs anyway. Noise has a way of creeping around anyway.
- Try not to schedule anything for the middle of the day when you’re sleeping. If you have to have an appointment on a day you’re working, schedule the appointment for later in the afternoon, so the effect resembles getting up early.
- Work all of your shifts in a streak. One place I worked scheduled me to be on one shift, off the day, on the shift after, off the next, then on. Such a schedule is tough to recover from. You aren’t fully adapting to either rhythm. If your job insists on having you keep a schedule like that, get another job. Your health is more important than any job. Protect your health above all, if only because if you get sick, you’re not going to be making any money.
- Get some sunshine when you wake up in the afternoon. This is the single most valuable piece of advice in this blog post. You could do something as simple as going outside and do some chore in the sun for a few minutes, even if it’s in the shade. The sun helps us produce Vitamin D. It also helps us have a good mood. For most people, the important thing seems to be seeing the sun. Exercise is great at this time of the day for night shift workers. I like to do the Tiger Moves.
- Eat healthfully. This is always important, but especially when you work nights. When people don’t eat healthfully and work nights, they tend to put on weight.
- Always respect your need to sleep. Make sure others respect your need to sleep too.
- Realize your vulnerability. You’ve got people who will knock on your door repeatedly when they know you’re inside. You’ve got domestic partners who will be cruel to you, not let you get your sleep. You’re vulnerable to the sunshine streaming into your window. You’ve got telemarketers and bill collectors who’ll keep calling throughout the day. Adding to all of that, you’ve got businesses only open during the day. It can be tough.
- Dealing with a racing mind can be extra hard during the daytime. Many activities can help, but the key is to select an activity or train of thought that will give you a sense of peace and not lead to simulation.
- It’s not natural to have to sleep during the day, all day. You have to make a deal with yourself that you’re not going to get out of bed during the time you’re supposed to be asleep. Calculate a minimum number of hours you need to sleep and stick to it.
- After a long period of working nights, you might find melatonin helps you sleep at night on your days off.
- Don’t immediately resort to taking sleeping aids. If you’re going to go to sleep at 8 a.m., stop drinking coffee after 3 a.m.
- Don’t vigorously or even moderately exercise after getting home in the morning. Exercise is stimulating, then the shower you take after the exercise often provides more stimulation. Instead, try a gentle form of exercise if you must exercise, something like tai chi or yoga.
- If you have a job involving a lot of sitting, ignore the above advice. Some vigorous exercise might help you get to sleep.
- Don’t eat a big meal and then try to lay down. Eat lightly, just enough to keep you from being too hungry to stay asleep.
- When you’re coming off of your string of shifts, wake up at your regular time in the afternoon. Go to sleep at the hour you want to go to bed at on your nights off consistently. Try taking less than 1 mg of melatonin about 30 minutes before bedtime.
- It helps to be okay with waking up early the next morning. You might need a nap in the afternoon. If that’s the case, don’t sleep too long.
- Some people can experience the effects of living in one time zone but living like they’re in a completely different one. This is known as social jet lag.
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For information about another work-related sleep challenge:
James Cobb, RN, MSN, is an emergency department nurse and the founder of the Dream Recovery System. His goal is to provide his readers with simple, actionable ways to improve their health and maximize their quality of life.