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Shift Work Disorder: What You Need to Know

by | Jan 27, 2023

Same as it needs oxygen, water, or food, your body needs sleep in order to function and perform well, as a basic physical need, and disturbances in the normal sleep schedule can impact general health and well-being.

Shift work disorder is a condition that is primarily associated with shift working, which refers to the work schedule performed in rotations and/or outside of the typical daylight working hours (i.e., 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, but loosely ranging between 6 am and 7 pm). This can include evening, night, and early morning work schedules or any variations that are different from the standard working hours. It occurs when your work schedule interferes with your normal wake and sleep times, and thus you never get enough sleep.

The Circadian Cycle and Shift Work Disorder

Alongside delayed and advanced sleep-wake phase disorder, irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder, and jet lag, shift work sleep disorder is included in the circadian sleep disorders.

The circadian cycle or circadian rhythm refers to the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle, to which the human body is adapted in order to match the changes between day and night.

There are both internal factors, such as period and cryptochrome genes, brain cells responding to light and dark, hormones like melatonin and cortisol, body temperature, eating habits, and metabolism, and external factors, such as work schedule, physical activity, traveling across different time zones, stress, medication, and artificial light that sustain, influence or have an impact on the circadian rhythms. Working in shifts is an external factor that forces your body to go against its internal clock.

As the circadian cycle is constant for most people, whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, you will tend to wake up, be alert, and become tired and feel sleepy around the same time of the day.

Because the majority of people are diurnal – which means they are awake during the day time, and asleep at night – working evening, night, or early shifts can lead to shift work disorder but which one has the highest impact on one’s body depends from person to person. Early birds could be perfectly content with morning shifts, while night owls can function best during the evening or night shifts.

What are the Symptoms of Shift Work Disorder? 

During sleep, the human body restores its chemical balance, regulates hormones, and heals and repairs itself at the cell level.

The brain processes the information input from the previous day, memories get organized, the immune system produces antibodies and cytokines to prevent and help fight infections, and your muscles relax and regenerate.

When your sleep is affected by shift work disorder, all of the processes mentioned above suffer. You may experience different levels of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling excessively sleepy while awake
  • Experiencing insomnia, whether it’s in the form of difficulty falling asleep, waking up repeatedly during the night, or difficulty staying asleep
  • Recurring sleep loss and insufficient sleep, up to four hours less than the average person
  • Poor quality of sleep and not waking up feeling rested, even after the normal amount of hours of sleep
  • Feeling tired, fatigued, and lacking energy
  • Experiencing difficulty concentrating or performing normal tasks
  • Headaches, migraines, digestive and metabolic issues, decreased libido
  • Mood issues such as irritability, higher anxiety, feeling unable to deal with usual life circumstances and situations

Shift Work Disorder Risks

Left untreated, shift work disorder can have many negative consequences on health and it can increase various risks:

  • Increased risks of accidents and injuries
  • Decreased work performance
  • Relationship issues due to increased mood issues and decreased libido
  • Increased risk of substance abuse due to self-medication with alcohol or drugs in order to manage to fall asleep
  • Weakened immune system leading to frequent infections
  • Increased risk for breast and prostate cancer
  • Higher cholesterol levels
  • Higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity.

Read also: What is Insomnia?

If you believe you might have a shift work disorder, it is advisable to start keeping a sleep journal and recording your sleep patterns and symptoms for at least two to four weeks and see a sleep specialist for a sleep assessment. When you are in need of a sleep specialist in Lafayette, LA, book an appointment with your local sleep experts at SleepWell Louisiana.

Our dedicated team, specialized in oral appliance therapy and non-surgical alternatives to conventional treatment options, will bring you right on track with a good night’s sleep, and also help you successfully improve your life quality and well-being.

Book an appointment with us