How to Avoid Shift-Work Sleep Disorder

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

Working night shifts can bring a host of sleeping issues, including insomnia, which is a primary symptom of shift work sleep disorder. If you are starting a night shift job, or already work a night shift job, here are some tips to help your body adjust, and to keep insomnia where it belongs – away from you!

The day before the day you are to clock-in on night shift, do something physical. Being physical is not only good for your general well-being, but it will set your body up for pre-nightshift sleep. Do something physical such as intense exercise, yard work, or get caught up on housework or household chores. Then, get a decent amount of sleep. You can do this by staying up to at least 3am, and then sleeping the rest of the night and the majority of the next day before you have to clock in. Alternatively, you can go to bed at a more normal time, such as 10pm, sleep until mid to late morning, have a big lunch, then take an extended, late afternoon nap.

While you are working your night shifts, eat real food, not just junk food. Just as you would eat breakfast-types of food when you wake up for a first-shift job, eat breakfast foods when you wake up for your third-shift job - even if it may be 9pm. Keep your meals and eating schedule as it should be, just in reverse. You should also consume plenty of water. It is hard to stay alert and be high-functioning when you are dehydrated.

If you tend to consume caffeine, consume it during the first half of your shift, not the last half of your shift. Plan out your caffeine intake just as you would if you were on day shift. You wouldn’t normally consume a large quantity of coffee at 3pm if you were getting off work at 5pm. Likewise, don’t drink coffee, sodas, or energy drinks late into your shift. If you do, you will more likley experience insomnia as a result.

When your shift is over and it is time to go home, wear very dark sunglasses. It may sound odd, but this is very important. Because the body reacts to sunlight, darkness is needed to help you sleep. Wearing dark sunglasses as you head home for work during daylight hours will cut down on the amount of sunlight that enters the body. Also, if you have not done so, invest in black-out curtains for your sleeping area, or wear an eye mask.

In regards to daytime people and activities that can induce insomnia, always remember that you are now living life in reverse. Try to schedule those daytime activities that are a must only on your off-days, or if possible, during hours in the day you'll already have slept and be awake. Just because you work night shift does not mean that your days are free. It would be ludicrous to think because someone works day shift that it is ok to schedule a home service for 2am. Likewise, you should protect your sleep time, too.

During your off days, make sure you get enough sleep. How you go about this is up to you. You can continue to keep to your sleep schedule that you maintain during your work week, or you can make changes for your weekend schedule. One option is to come in from your last shift of the week, sleep for approximately four hours, get up and tackle any day activities that are 'a must', and then go to bed around 11pm.

With thought and preparation, you can keep insomnia at bay, and keep yourself high-function level for your nighttime job. The key is making smooth transitions to living your life in reverse.

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free online sleep training for insomnia. Over 2,500 insomniacs have completed his course and 98% of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.