Dr. Girendra HoskereEmployees Who Perform Shift Work Often Have Trouble Maintaining Appropriate Sleep Pattern

Anyone who has experienced a sleepless night understands that few things in life are more frustrating than not being able to get enough rest.

For people who work shifts – whether straight night shifts or alternating nights and days – getting adequate sleep is vital to staying alert, healthy and productive.

“People who perform shift work can be especially susceptible to sleep problems because our bodies aren’t designed to work at night when it’s dark,” said Dr. Girendra Hoskere, director of the Bristol Regional Medical Center sleep evaluation center. “Shift work sleep disorder is real, and with 20 percent of the workforce in the country working night shifts, we are seeing more patients with it.”

No one needs to explain how real this disorder is to Joe Stewart. Stewart is a sergeant with the Sullivan County Sherriff’s Department. He’s worked shifts – an alternating schedule of night and day work – all 16 years he has served the department.

Stewart said he still has trouble sleeping after his first night shift.

“Now I sleep about four hours after my first shift back, then six-and-a-half to seven hours the following days,” he said. “It is hard to transition the first day.”

One thing that can make day sleep nearly impossible for Stewart – and for other shift workers – is something he has no control over: the sun.

“If the sun’s up when I come home, I can’t go to sleep,” he said. “But if it’s still dark outside when I get home, I am usually fine. I have blackened my windows to help.”

Dr. Hoskere, a board-certified pulmonologist and critical care specialist who is board-certified in sleep medicine, said light is a powerful stimulator of the sleep/wake cycle. When there is light, the brain signals the body to be awake. Dr. Hoskere completely understands the difficulties Street experiences and said sleep issues can have other residual effects.

“When people aren’t getting enough sleep, they may complain of sleepiness, and they may have difficulty concentrating or develop mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety or irritability,” said Dr. Hoskere, who practices with Wellmont Medical Associates Pulmonology & Sleep.

New research is showing that insufficient sleep contributes to a variety of health problems.

“Some research shows a link between lack of sleep and headaches, peptic ulcers, acid reflux and coronary artery disease,” Dr. Hoskere said. “When you don’t get enough sleep, cognition decreases and you see more work errors and accidents.”

Stewart said that when he started working shift, he developed a more noticeable issue: weight fluctuation. Luckily, he’s found a way to deal with it.

“I had weight loss when I started this job, then I had weight gain,” he said. “Working this kind of schedule can mess up your eating habits. I try to eat breakfast first thing when I get up in the evenings.”

While he visited a doctor about sleep issues early in his career, Stewart has improved his sleep schedule by lying down as soon as possible when he gets home from a night shift and darkening his windows.

He offers practical advice to people who are new to shift work.

“Try to rest even if you can’t sleep,” he said. “Knowing you have to work, you should really rest – take off your shoes and lie down, even if you can’t go to sleep. If you don’t rest, it will catch up to you in your shift.”

Dr. Hoskere offers additional tips for shift workers who have problems going to sleep. “Make sleep a priority during time off from work,” he said. “Be sure to get rest between shifts as well.” Dr. Hoskere also suggests:

  • After working night shift, try to keep from driving a long distance.
  • Avoid bright lights or loud music.
  • Try not to work too much overtime – keep a strict calendar and make sleep a priority.
  • Pay attention to your caffeine intake in the hours before you get off from work. If you drink it too close to the end of your shift, it can keep you awake.
  • Avoid alcohol on your days off, and do not use alcohol to try to go to sleep. “People think alcohol helps with sleep, but it is one of the worst drugs you can take if you are trying to sleep,” Dr. Hoskere said. “Alcohol can alter your sleep schedule and cause problems while you are asleep.”
  • Make your sleep a family priority. “It’s important for family members to make it possible for shift workers to sleep by keeping the environment quiet,” he said.  “Shift workers must have family support.”

“People should see their doctor if they have difficulty sleeping, if they have difficulty concentrating while working, if they have mood disorders – maybe they feel depressed, anxious, or irritable – or if they have headaches,” Dr. Hoskere said.  “People should not feel ashamed to seek help for shift work sleep disorder. It is easily correctible, and the sleep evaluation centers at Bristol Regional and other Wellmont Health System locations can help.”

To schedule an appointment with a Wellmont sleep center, please call Wellmont Nurse Connection at 1-877-230-NURSE (6877). For more information about sleep disorders, please visit www.wellmont.org.