Too few ZZZs? Maybe it’s Shift Work Disorder

Most people are going to bed at 10 o’clock at night – not going to work. But more than 15 million Americans perform some kind of nonstandard shift work1, including nurses, air traffic controllers, firefighters, radio DJs and truck drivers. Approximately one-fourth of those who work a night, early morning and/or rotating-shift may be suffering from shift work disorder. 

SWD is a sleep disorder that occurs when the body’s internal sleep/wake clock, or circadian rhythm, becomes out of sync with your work schedule. When this happens, you want to sleep when you should be working and are awake when you need to sleep. Because of the disruption to the sleep/wake cycle, people with SWD then have trouble sleeping or are extremely tired. They also tend to get one to four hours of sleep less than average and do not feel refreshed when they wake up. People who may be more susceptible to SWD are those who are over the age of 50, and have diabetes, heart disease, and a history of sleep or stomach disorders.

This continuous strain of unbalanced sleep can manifest itself it other areas, causing difficulty focusing, missed family or social activities, irritability, headaches, lack of energy, decreased alertness, stress, and problems with appetite and memory. People with SWD also are at increased risk for accidents, work-related errors and absenteeism. In the long-term, people who have shift positions for longer than 10 years have considerably higher rates of heart and gastrointestinal diseases compared to the general population.

SWD affects both men and women of all age groups. It typically lasts as long as you are on a shift work schedule. While on the job, shift workers can stay better rested by: reducing the number of times they change shifts; changing shifts forward in time rather than backward; taking regular rest breaks or exercise breaks if available; and working in a brightly-lit environment.

If you are unable to change your shift to normal work hours, you can take steps to manage symptoms.

  • Try to avoid caffeinated foods and drinks before going to bed.
  • Make sure you get eight hours of sleep each day.
  • Turn on bright lights when you need to be awake to lessen drowsiness.
  • Have a sleep area that is dark and quiet.
  • Maintain the same sleep schedule even on weekends.

“SWD can be diagnosed after a doctor reviews a record of your sleep patterns and work schedule,” explains Dr. Jessela Tan, board-certified in sleep medicine and medical director at the Lake Pointe Sleep Center. “In some cases, an overnight sleep study may be done to see if other sleep disorders may be causing difficulties sleeping.”

The length of time someone has SWD and the severity of associated problems will vary from person to person. In general, symptoms tend to disappear after you start sleeping at regular times again, although it may take the body up to an entire week to adjust to the changes.  For more information about SWD, visit the American Sleep Association website at

Looking for a Sleep Medicine physician, call 1-866-525-LPMC (5762) for a referral to Dr. Jessela Tan or another physician on our medical staff at Lake Pointe Medical Center.

Trouble finding your ZZZZs?  The Lake Pointe Sleep Center can help.  Contact us at 972-526-7500 for more information.

 Guest column submitted by Lake Pointe Medical Center in Rowlett.

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