Melatonin: a lifesaver for shift workers
It’s 7 am and you’re ending your work day just as the rest of the world is getting up to have their breakfast. You’re tired and ready for bed, but the sunlight peeking through your blinds is keeping you up. And when you do finally fall asleep, you’re restless and wake up every few hours, making it feel more like a catnap and less like a good night’s sleep.
Working the night shift
Sleep issues are common among shift workers, usually as a result of having to sleep through the daylight hours. Although tiredness may seem like no big deal, a lack of sleep can lead to an increased risk of workplace injuries and car accidents. It’s been theorized that fatigue played a pivotal role in the infamous Chernobyl disaster, the Exxon oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989 and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.
But why can’t we easily stay up all night and get quality sleep during the day? There’s a reason it’s harder to sleep during daylight hours, and it has everything to do with our body’s ability to produce melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone released by the brain in direct response to changes in light. Melatonin’s main function is to regulate your body’s internal clock, helping you enter a period of nighttime drowsiness and signalling your body that it is time to go to sleep. Exposure to light, natural or otherwise, can disrupt and block melatonin production, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Since their sleep schedule is usually reversed, melatonin is harder to come by for shift workers.
Why is it harder to sleep during the day?
Humans have naturally evolved to sleep at night when it’s dark, and stay awake during daylight hours. This sleep-wake cycle is referred to as our circadian rhythm or biological clock. In order to effectively switch your sleeping schedule to the reverse of your naturally occurring circadian rhythm, you must shift your body’s internal clock, which can take several days.
This is also helpful to note when dealing with jet lag. Even though your body’s internal clock is telling you you’re tired and it’s time for bed, waiting it out to align better with your schedule will result in a more restful sleep when you eventually wind down.
A harder hit on shift workers
Shift work schedules typically have a set window between 6 pm and 6 am. According to the Workers Health and Safety Centre, 1 in 4 Canadians does shift work, and 1 in 5 work evenings or overnight. In the majority of cases, this means that shift workers are awake and fully alert throughout the night, and have to get their sleep during the daytime.
Individuals who work night time shifts may not produce melatonin when it’s time to sleep, because daylight disrupts melatonin production. This can lead to a condition called Shift Work Sleep Disorder.
The symptoms of this disorder include:
- Lack of restorative sleep
- General lack of energy while awake
- Inability to concentrate
- Drowsiness during and outside of work hours
Overnight workers may experience symptoms similar to jet lag, which (besides sleeping issues), can include indigestion, general irritability and inability to concentrate. This can also occur for those who work early morning shifts or rotating shifts.
Tips for a new and improved sleep schedule
Don’t let the light in
One of the main factors that affects your sleep quality is light exposure. To avoid overexposure, wear sunglasses on the way home to counter the effect that the daylight has on your body. This will help prepare your body for sleep.
Since light plays such an important role in the quality of your sleep, it’s vital to ensure that your bedroom doesn’t let any daylight in. Investing in blackout curtains or a sleep mask is the best way to ensure no daylight seeps in.
Keep the sound out
To avoid getting woken up by any activity that other people outside or in your household may be engaging in, wear earplugs or use a white noise machine. There are plenty of white noise apps available to download on your smartphone. To avoid unnecessary disruptions to your sleep, let family members know to only wake you if it’s an emergency.
Consistency is key
Stay on a consistent sleep schedule, even on your days off! This will ensure that your body’s internal clock will readjust and allow for quality sleep.
A balanced diet is important to your overall health, but is especially crucial if your sleep schedule is untraditional by necessity. Additionally, avoid consuming caffeine or alcohol in the hours before you plan to go to sleep.
Melatonin is found naturally in certain foods, so adding these into your diet is a great way to ensure you’re getting an adequate amount of this vital hormone.
Here are some foods that are high in melatonin:
- Tart cherries
- Goji berries
- Nuts (especially pistachios and almonds)
Melatonin for shift workers
Melatonin supplements can be helpful as a sleep aid for shift workers who have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, even during daylight hours. Studies show that taking melatonin supplements to aid sleep during daylight hours result in a faster ability to fall asleep, and better quality sleep overall.
Melatonin can also decrease symptoms of stress and anxiety, since your hormone levels play a key role in your emotional state.
- Healthline: Shift work sleep disorder
- Medical News Today: The impact of shift work on health
- CBC: Read this if you do shift work
- Medical News Today: Melatonin for sleep – What to know
- NCBI: Effects of melatonin in shift-work nurses
- Health Link BC: Shift work sleep disorder
- WebMD: Foods high in melatonin
- Healthy Sleep: Sleep, performance and public safety