Wellness Wednesday: Tired of Counting Sheep?

As I worked the night shift for ten years. My schedule has changed. I am having problems sleeping at night and have taken sedatives occasionally. Could my problem result from working the night shift for so many years?
—Terri

Dear Terri,
You have worked for several years at a time when your body would typically be sleeping in keeping with the circadian rhythm. The sleep-wake cycle in human beings is called circadian rhythm; a hormone called melatonin controls this rhythm. Melatonin is produced by cells in the pineal gland at the brain’s base. The signal for the production of melatonin is the absence of light. When it becomes dark at night, the pineal gland produces high levels of melatonin that get distributed to the hypothalamus, another command center at the base of the brain. This triggers other mechanisms that make us sleepy. At daybreak, the light shuts down the production of melatonin in the brain to almost nil and thus begins the wake cycle. The pineal gland in the brain may therefore be considered the master clock of the body.

Terri, you have therefore kept a sleep cycle that is contrary to that dictated by the body’s master clock. Generally, the body may adjust to this nonstandard sleep cycle over some time as you did. However, if the individual changes back to the standard (day) shift, one then will likely experience a sleep disorder called shift work disorder.

The sleep deprivation that results can cause one to be accident-prone. Excessive sleepiness, decreased productivity, impaired mental acuity, and irritability may also be manifested. There is a suggestion that this sleep disorder may be associated with a digestive disorder, heart disease, and menstrual irregularities.

The use of alcohol, sedatives, and sleep aids are not recommended because they can be habit-forming. Alcohol also has many other harmful effects on health. I also would not recommend using drugs that improve alertness, such as caffeine, for the same reason. Taking short naps during break time may be helpful as well as modifying one’s environment. Observing good sleep hygiene, such as not going to bed with a full stomach and being physically active but not close to bedtime, is also helpful. I recommend consulting your healthcare provider for further information regarding diagnosis and treatment.

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