(Updated at Mar 23 / 2023)
Working night shifts? Find out whether you have shift work sleep disorder
In the modern world, almost everyone has a degree of sleep disorder regardless of their working schedule. It is an inevitable consequence of the overabundance of information and its easy accessibility. Our brains are overwhelmed with information during the day and we do not let them rest even several minutes before going to bed as we take our phones with us. But people who work night shifts have it worse – they can develop shift work sleep disorder (SWSD), a condition that requires therapy and not only a change of the lifestyle.
Why night shifts can cause a sleep disorder?
First of all, our bodies are designed to wake up when the sun is rising and go to bed when it sets. Years, after electricity had been invented, shifted our wakefulness hours drastically – we do not wake up with the first rays of the sun and go to bed 6 or even more hours after the sunset. Only this can already contribute to the disorder of our internal clock known as circadian rhythm or sleep-wakefulness cycle and result in difficulty waking up in the morning, trouble falling asleep, daytime sleepiness, and so on. But people who work night shifts do not get to sleep during the dark hours at all what messes up their circadian rhythm even more severely. As a result, they develop certain sleep disorders such as:
- Insufficient sleep (60% of night-shift workers). Usually, people who sleep during daytime sleep only for 4-6 hours instead of recommended 7-8 due.
- Poor quality of sleep (30%). It is hard to sleep during the day when other people are awake. Your sleep can be easily interrupted by a phone call, your family members doing their chores, or simply because you don’t have blackout curtains.
- Insomnia (9%). Even being exhausted from the long working hours, man night workers suffer from insomnia or simply cannot fall asleep without sleeping pills.
The problems created by shift work add up to the overall modern life factors and can make people depressed, develop generalized anxiety, irritability, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, and many other health conditions.
In what symptoms you can suspect SWSD?
The symptoms of the disorder are similar to ones that a person experiences when traveling to another time zone, i.e. jetlag. Look out for these signs if you work night shifts to get help timely:
- You rarely sleep for more than 4-6 hours a day.
- You suffer from insomnia or several awakenings.
- You feel sleepy after you have been sleeping for hours.
- You are sleepy during working hours.
- You noticed that you can have blackouts or microsleeps.
- You notice that you have unreasonable mood swings, became more irritable, anxious, depressed, and so on.
- You find it difficult to focus.
- You frequently feel physically or mentally drained.
To track the symptoms, you can keep a diary and write down all of your feelings and circumstances related to sleep. This will be helpful if you address a medical specialist. In the case of suspected SWSD, it is advised to go to a therapist of a somnologist, a specialist in sleep disorders. A somnologist can provide you with the tool that can confirm your diagnosis, actimetry sensor (actigraph), which will track your wakefulness and sleeping hours and help detect whether you indeed do not sleep enough, how many hours spent awake misalign with your internal clock, and so on.
To get the diagnosis and prescription drugs to cope with SWSD, you have to show the symptoms listed above for three consecutive months while having night shifts. Besides, the data from the wearing of the actigraph for 14 days is analyzed.
Although you can get prescription medications that can substantially improve your wakefulness during the working hours (Artvigil) and sleep (sleeping pills), we would also recommend you get your physical health checked. The thing is that besides SWSD or maybe even instead of it you have another disease or disorder which makes you sleepy and also interferes with your sleep. The basic tests such as blood test, blood sugar test, blood pressure measurement, and other based on your other complaints (for instance, heartburn, headaches, and others) can reveal these conditions and ensure you receive the needed treatment.
A sleep disorder can also develop as a result of vitamin D deficiency that affects most night shift workers because this vitamin is produced in our bodies as a response to exposure to the sun. Besides, poor dietary choices can also cause iron deficiency and make you sleepy during your working hours.
How can you cope with SWSD?
Besides stating the obvious that a regular sleep and wakefulness routine can help you with the symptoms, we can say that the condition can be managed with the drugs approved by the FDA.
People who work night shifts are commonly also those whose work requires attention, focus, alertness, speed of thought, and so on. For instance, medical workers, police, military, air traffic, pilots, and so on – these are the professions where a few seconds of hesitation can cost lives. Thus, these people definitely need stimulants that can make them awake and enhance their cognitive functions.
Not long ago, the most popular drug for this purpose had been Adderall. But currently, it is majorly replaced with a safer and more effective medication Armodafinil.
Both Adderall and Armodafinil were primarily developed for narcolepsy, a disorder in which people cannot stay awake during the day even if they sleep for enough hours at night. Later, the medicines had then approved for SWSD and other conditions. And it’s not a secret to anyone that they are frequently used off-label, i.e. when a person is not diagnosed with any sleepiness disorder but doesn’t have enough sleep or wants to enhance cognitive functions.
Both Adderall and Armodafinil provide amazing effects in terms of wakefulness promotion and cognitive functions enhancement although it is not proven but people who use them insist that they do have this effect. Though there is a difference in the medications’ principle of effect and other features. You can find their side by side comparison in the table below and chose the right drug for your needs:
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