While sleep may appear to be a reward or special treat for some, it is a vital biological process that is necessary for optimal functioning.Without proper sleep, the body cannot adequately process new information, create memories, rid itself of toxic waste, restore energy, balance hormone secretion, and repair cells. Inadequate length and/or quality of sleep can lead to both mental and physical challenges. (Nunez & Lamoreux, 2023)
Our Built In Sleep Cycle
Our master biological clock regulates physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. This process is referred to as a circadian rhythm. Sleeping at night and wakefulness during the day is an example of the circadian rhythm. Day light alerts the body to send messages to the brain to release hormones that promote attention, awareness, and energy. Conversely, in the evening, hormones that produce relaxation and sleep are released. Because the circadian rhythm is deeply rooted in our biological systems, it is difficult to sleep during the day and stay awake at night. Even when the length of sleep is adequate, frequent awakenings and the absence of deep sleep may occur when one attempts to sleep during the day (Suni & Dimitriu, 2023).
When Life Gets in the Way of Our Built in Sleep Cycle
Individuals who work nights, early mornings, rotating shifts, or irregular hours lose one to four hours of sleep per day, as they experience problems falling asleep and staying asleep (insomnia) during non-work hours (Pacheco & Rehman, 2023). A stressful job such as a police officer (Ma et al., 2015), healthcare worker(Stimpfel, 2020) or active-duty military (Troxel et al.), coupled with non-traditional work hours, compound the problem. One of the most often reported complaints of military members returning from deployment is a sleep disturbance.
Sleep deprivation and sleep disruption may result in consequences that negatively impact health and day-to-day functioning. Furthermore, there is a bi-directional association between sleep problems and illness, meaning that sleep problems may cause or increase symptoms of illness and illness may cause or increase sleep problems. (Medic, Willie, & Hemeis, 2017).
Short Term consequences of sleep problems consist of but are not limited to:
- Emotional distress
- Mood changes
- Problems with decision making and memory
- Problems in work performance
- Increased negative reactions to stressful situations
- Physical complaints (e.g., low level pain, cold symptoms).
- Weight gain
Potential long term consequences may include:
- Depression and anxiety
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Digestive problems
- Heart conditions
Tips for Promoting Better Sleep
Many individuals do not have the luxury of changing jobs or life circumstances to resolve sleep problems. But there some simple things you can do to increase the probability of better sleep even if your daily waking/sleeping routines are not synchronized with your natural circadian rhythm (Shriane, Rigney Ferguson, 2022).
Try making simple modifications to your daily schedule. Some of the ideas listed below may fit better into your lifestyle than others, and some may be more effective for you than others (Suni & Dimitriu, 2023; Lammers-van der Holst et al., 2020; health.mil., 2023).
- Before sleeping, set your thermostat to a cool temperature (no higher than 68 degrees).
- Wear sunglasses on your way home from working a night shift if you plan to sleep when you arrive home. Sunlight tells your body it is time to wake up.
- Block out as much light as possible using dark shades on windows, eye masks, and turning off computers that may be emitting light.
- Block out as much noise as possible. Turn off TVs and other mobile devices, close doors, and use ear plugs.
- Spend a few minutes winding down and clearing your mind before trying to sleep.
- Avoid caffeine (coffee and energy drinks), and nicotine (cigarettes) at least 6 hours before trying to sleep.
- Avoid alcohol intake. Even though alcohol has a calming effect, it negatively impacts the quality of sleep.
- If possible, take prescribed medications at times when side effects, such as stimulating effects) won’t interfere with sleep.
- Be careful with over the counter supplements. Melatonin, a popular supplement may actually worsen sleep problems if taken at the wrong time or wrong dose. Seek out a sleep professional for advice before using it.
- Do not eat a large meal immediately prior to sleep. The work involved in digestion may reduce sleep quality.
- Moderate exercise relieves muscle tension and promotes relaxation. Several hours before attempting to sleep, move around and stretch.
If you experience challenges falling or staying asleep for a prolonged period, and your sleep problems are causing distress and problems with daily functioning, contact your health care provider. Sleep problems may signify other health issues. Your health care provider can explore and address the root causes with you, suggest options that may reduce sleeping challenges, and help you get back on track.
Health.mil. (n.d.). Sleep Tips for Sift Workers. https://www.health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/Centers-of-Excellence/Psychological-Health-Center-of-Excellence/Real-Warriors-Campaign/Articles/Sleep-Tips-for-Shift-Workers
Lammers-van der Holst, H. M., Murphy, A. S., Wise, J., & Duffy, J. F. (2020). Sleep tips for shift workers in the time of pandemic. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care., 20(4), 128–130. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7189699/
Ma, C.C., Andrew, M.E., Fekedulegn, D., Gu, J.K., Hartley, T.A., Charles, L.E., Violanti, J.M., & Burchfiel, C.M. (2015) Shift work and occupational stress in police officers. Safety and Health at Work, 6(1) 25-29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4372186/
Medic, G., Wille, M, Hemels, ME. (2017) Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nature and Science of Sleep. 9, 151-161. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5449130/
Nunez, K & Lamoreuz, K. (2023) What is the purpose of sleep? https://www.healthline.com/health/why-do-we-sleep
Pacheco, D. & Rehman, A. (2023) Shift work disorder. What it is, what causes it, and its potential complications. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/shift-work-disorder
Sleep Health Foundation. (2023). Healthy sleep practices for shift workers. https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/?view=article&id=1141:healthy-sleep-practices-for-shift-workers&catid=98
Stimpfel, A.W. (2020) Shift work and sleep disruption: Implications for nurses’ health. American Nurse. https://www.myamericannurse.com/shift-work-and-sleep-disruption-implications-for-nurses-health/
Suni, E. & Dimitriu, A. (2023). Circadian rhythm. What it is, what shapes it, and why it’s fundamental to getting quality sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/circadian-rhythm
Troxel, W.M., Shih, R.A., Pedersen, E.R., Geyer, L., Fisher, M.P. Fisher, Griffin, B.A., Haas, A.C., Kurz, J., Steinberg, P.S. (2015). Sleep in the military: Promoting healthy sleep among U.S. servicemembers. Rand Health Quarterly, 5(2), 19. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR739.html