6. What is Shift Work Disorder?

Shift work disorder is a type of circadian rhythm sleep disorder, in that it occurs because of a misalignment or de-synchronization of your internal body clock, which is what helps govern normal sleep patterns.

Shift work is increasingly regarded as hazardous to sleep and health. Shift work involves schedules that deviate from the standard, 9-5 daytime workweek. Many people who work shifts are on rotating schedules that include both days and nights, and others work consistently late nights, overnights, or very early mornings. These schedules are frequently disruptive to circadian rhythms, and make it difficult for people to get sufficient amounts of high-quality sleep.

Because this chronic condition is directly related to your work schedule, it may continue as long as your work hours interfere with your body’s natural wake-sleep cycle. With shift work disorder, you may experience:

  • excessive sleepiness when you should be alert
  • insomnia when sleep is needed, desired, or expected
  • sleep that feels insufficient or unrefreshing
  • lack of energy during waking hours
  • difficulty concentrating or chronic headaches

How does shift work impact the circadian system?

Sleep is regulated by two body systems, the circadian biological clock and sleep-wake homeostasis. These are the systems that cause you to feel sleepy at certain times and wakeful at other times.

When you’ve been awake for a long time, your internal sleep-wake homeostasis recognizes that your need for sleep is building, it also helps you stay asleep long enough to feel rested.

Your internal body clock, or circadian rhythm, is what helps regulate periods of sleepiness and wakefulness within the 24-hour cycle. As this rhythm dips and rises, you feel alternately tired or energized.

Shift work creates a misalignment between your biological clock and your schedule. When this happens, your body clock sends you signals that conflict with your activities. This may cause you to feel sleepy when you’re at work, or alert when you’re trying to go to sleep.

What are the consequences of shift work disorder?

Shift work disorder can cause chronic sleep deprivation, creating a significant sleep debt that you can never catch up with. The implications of chronic sleep loss can be quite serious, ranging from irritability and mood problems that affect your relationships, to an increased likelihood of getting in an accident.

Shift work disorder increases your risk of developing chronic health problems and cancer; it’s also associated with poor coping skills, impaired social functioning, and an increased risk of substance abuse.

How is shift work disorder diagnosed and treated?

Actigraphy is used to help diagnose circadian rhythm disorders. This non-invasive diagnostic technique requires you to wear a device called an actigraph on your wrist, much like a watch.

Worn for several days or longer, the actigraph measures activity through light and movement to accurately assess your sleep patterns and cycles of activity and rest.

Once Dr. Battle can accurately diagnose shift work disorder, she will work with you to find natural solutions to recalibrate your body clock and get you back on track.

In addition to offering advice on how to adjust your schedule and sleep environment for optimal results, she may recommend beneficial relaxation techniques and technology.