7 Tips to Sleep Better When You Work the Night Shift
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
Does it feel like consistently getting a good night's sleep is becoming more and more difficult? Between social media timelines that demand our attention, upsetting news headlines, and everyday life stresses, sack time is being replaced with doomscrolling and binge-watching. When you throw in the added challenge of working off-time shifts, getting quality sleep can feel downright impossible.
“Shift work is really challenging. The truth is, your body never fully adjusts to it,” explains Jared Minkel, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, sleep behavioral specialist, and Twill’s director of digital therapeutics product design. “Our bodies are perfectly designed to work with the sun—the sun rises at a certain time, sets at a certain time, and there are a lot of things in your body that are set to that cycle.”
This body clock, otherwise known as our circadian rhythm, is closely linked to external signals like light and temperature, and causes you to feel awake in the mornings and sleepy at night. When your work schedule doesn’t align with your body clock, like when you work the night shift, it can throw your whole rhythm out of whack, making it more difficult to feel focused and fully “on” at work and harder to fall asleep.
Luckily, there are some simple steps you can take to feel more awake while working and ready for sleep when you return home, plus ensure you are getting the best rest possible.
Use—but Don’t Abuse—Caffeine
Caffeine supplements can be a helpful tool for shift workers, especially those who work the night shift or have rotating shifts. Minkel recommends taking a single large dose somewhere between 200 to 450 mg, right before the start of your shift. By taking it right before, or at the start, of your working hours, Minkel explains, the caffeine will power you through your shift but will wear off by the time you return home to go to sleep. With that in mind, you’ll want to avoid taking it in the second half of your shift.
Minkel notes that caffeine supplements are generally preferred over coffee or energy drinks because they allow you to know exactly how much caffeine you're ingesting. Make sure to consult a doctor and get to know your caffeine tolerance before starting a caffeine regimen.
Set Your Bedroom Up for Slumber
Minkel says to keep a “light-tight bedroom” by using blackout curtains to block any light from seeping in. If you don't have blackout curtains, garbage bags can work in a pinch. In addition, consider using an eye mask to help block out light coming from a bedside clock or an adjoining room and ear plugs to block out noise. According to Minkel, sounds like birdsong or even morning traffic can affect your circadian rhythm, making it harder to get shut-eye. You can also take additional steps, such as getting comfortable bedding and ensuring your bedroom is set to a cool temperature. The National Sleep Foundation recommends setting the thermostat to between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 19.4 degrees Celsius).
Know When and How Long to Nap
If you go about napping the right way, you could feel recharged and reduce your brain’s desire for sleep, otherwise known as sleep pressure. Aim for a nap that lasts no longer than 30-90 minutes, and allow yourself some time to wake up afterward. For shift workers, in particular, Minkel says a nap in the few hours leading up to your shift or in the first half of a night shift may be most helpful.
Avoid Bright Light Near Your Shift’s End and After
There is only so much within your control, but if you do have the ability to lower shades or draw curtains toward the end of your shift, Minkel recommends doing so. That way, you can block out bright light that would cause you to be more awake, and steadily allow your sleep pressure to build so it’s easier to fall asleep upon returning home.
Don’t Drive If You Don’t Have To
Getting behind the wheel to head home after working the night shift can be especially dangerous because, put simply, you're just so tired. One study suggests that night shift work increases the chances of near-crash driving events, particularly on the morning commute home.
But, for shift workers, it may also be dangerous to drive into work soon after waking up, due to what scientists call sleep inertia. "It’s when your brain isn't fully on yet,” Minkel explains, and you may be more prone to making mistakes. Sleep inertia rarely lasts longer than 30 minutes, so plan to give yourself enough time to shake off the cobwebs before heading to work.
If at all possible, Minkel recommends having a friend or family member drive you to and from your shift, or looking to a taxi or ride-hailing or -sharing service to get you home safely.
Sleep and Stay Up Late on Days Off
“When you have a day off, you may notice that you start to slide to a more normal day-night schedule that doesn’t mesh with your work schedule,” Minkel says. To prevent this from happening, he suggests staying up as late as you can and sleeping in as late as you can the next day. This may look like staying up until 2 a.m. and sleeping in until 10 a.m.—though it may be difficult, your body clock will thank you later when you return to your job.
If you’re wondering why you can’t just stick to a sleep schedule already, it’s because you're fighting against your own body clock. “You have to remember that you’re doing something really difficult: You’re trying to keep a sleep-wake schedule that’s not the same as the rest of society’s and against your own biology,” Minkel explains.
Still, it doesn't have to be a losing battle. By following these tips, practicing self-compassion, and taking small steps to rest and recharge, can help you regulate your sleep wake cycle and thrive—even while working the night shift.
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