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National Better Sleep Month: Are You Getting a Good Night’s - or Day’s - Sleep?

May 24, 2011

The recent incidents of air traffic controllers on the night shift literally falling asleep on the job illustrate just one of the potential hazards of sleep deprivation – sleep-deprived people may experience drowsiness so severe that it interferes with their work performance.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as many as 70 million Americans may be affected by chronic sleep loss or sleep disorders, and the likelihood of sleep deprivation increases among night-shift workers. Nearly one-quarter of all U.S. workers have to work shifts that are not during daylight hours. More than two-thirds of those workers report they are often drowsy at work, and they have difficulty falling or staying asleep during the day when their work schedule requires them to sleep.

"The human body simply wasn’t designed to work at night," says Dr. Nitun Verma, a specialist in adult and pediatric sleep medicine and the medical director of Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders. "Our ‘biological clocks’ are programmed for sleep during the night. Today’s around-the-clock society, however, demands that some people work at night and sleep during the day."

Dr. Verma notes that night-shift workers face two problems – trying to stay awake and work and dealing with insomnia once they get home. "One of the most important things night workers can do to stay alert is to keep the lights bright," he advises. "You also should take breaks as frequently as allowed. Drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages at the start of your shift may help, too, as well as taking a nap before you go to work."

To ensure a good sleep during the day, he adds, night-shift workers should sleep in a darkened room with the shades drawn and the phone, TV, radio and computer turned off to eliminate distractions.

Keep a Regular Sleep Schedule

"Night-shift workers also should try to keep the same sleep schedule throughout the week," Dr. Verma says. "Obviously, that’s difficult for many people on their days off work because most family activities take place during the day, but avoiding changes to your sleep schedule as much as possible helps keep your body adjusted to a nighttime work schedule."

Night-shift workers aren’t the only ones who can benefit from a regular sleep schedule.

"As much as possible, it’s good for everyone to keep the same sleep schedule throughout the week," Dr. Verma explains. "Consider the case of teenagers and college students who study late into the night and get up early for classes during the week. Then on weekends, their pattern shifts and they sleep later in the day. Come Monday morning, the pattern shifts again. When that happens, they actually suffer a form of ‘jet lag,’ which is one reason Monday mornings seem terrible."

As for genuine jet lag, Dr. Verma notes that traveling eastward is generally harder for most people because they have to get up earlier the next day. He offers a few suggestions for preventing and relieving jet lag:

- Before traveling to a new time zone, gradually adjust your sleeping and eating schedules over the course of several days to coincide with the time at your destination.

- Avoid caffeine after 2 p.m. so its effects will wear off by the time you are ready to go to bed.

- If you have trouble falling asleep at the proper hour, a mild sleeping-aid medication with diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in over-the-counter drugs such as Benedryl) may help.

"Caffeine and diphenhydramine can be useful in coping with jet lag, but you need to remember that they can have adverse side effects, too," Dr. Verma cautions. "Too much caffeine can make you jittery. Diphendyramine can make you drowsy during the day and cause dry mouth, nose and throat. There are prescription medications that have fewer side effects, but you have to see a doctor first."

For more information about the Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders, including an interactive quiz to help you determine if you may have a sleep disorder, visit www.washingtonsleep.com.

In the next few weeks look for part two of this sleep series which will cover additional information on common sleep disorders and restful sleep tips.