Circadian Rhythm Disorders – Dealing with Jet Lag and Shift Working.

Jetlag and shift working that makes you wakeful when you should be sleeping and sleepy when you need to be awake are called circadian rhythm disorders.  There is a mismatch with the circadian rhythms and the body’s internal clock.

Circadian rhythms are the 24 hour cycles that make us alert and sleepy at certain times of the day, usually in response to light and dark – there’s more about them in the Sleep FAQs article.

We’ll look at jetlag and shift working here.

Jetlag.

In jet lag your body doesn’t have time to adjust to different time zones because of the speed at which you’ve travelled.

Apart from sleepiness/alertness at the wrong times, other symptoms can include:

  • Mild nausea, stomach problems, and menstrual problems in women.
  • Losing sleep when you travel and sitting for a long time in an uncomfortable position can make it worse, as can stress and too much alcohol and caffeine.
  • It’s temporary and some people adjust more quickly than others.  It’s likely to be worse if you cross more than 2 time zones, especially if you’re travelling east.  Sleep experts suggest that it takes about 1 day for the body to adjust for every time zone you cross.
  • The elderly people are likely to have more difficulty with jetlag.

Avoiding and treating jet lag.

  • Slowly adjust yourself to your wake and sleep times before you travel and then try to keep your wake/sleep to that of your end location.
  • Melatonin supplements can also help people who are suffering or prone to jetlag.  Melatonin in a hormone that helps the body sleep.
  • Light therapy does the reverse – helping to stimulate wakefulness.

Shift working and sleep.

Working shifts often interrupts sleep patterns and some people find it easier to work shifts, especially night shifts or parts of nights/early mornings, than others.  If this way of working is getting in the way of giving you the sleep you need, there are some tips here for improving things.

Night shifts disrupt the circadian rhythms (see above) and the consequent lack of sleep can leave you more prone to accidents at work or when driving to and from work, poor work performance, poor health and affect your home relationships.

Try these tips to improve your sleep:

  • Talk to your employer if night shifts are affecting you.  If you work rotating nights you may want to volunteer for permanent nights, especially if you don’t get sufficient rest time between the change from night shifts to day shifts. A regular sleep pattern, even during the day, may be better than fragmented sleep.
  • Talk to your employer about working fewer nights or no nights; could you talk to colleagues about your shift patterns to achieve a pattern that suits all of you.  Presenting an employer or the shift-scheduler with a solution rather than a problem may help you get the shifts you prefer.
  • Increase your total sleep time by having naps and lengthening the time you allow for sleep.
  • Can you use bright lights at work?  This encourages wakefulness.
  • Drink caffeinated drinks during the first part of your shift and not near the end as they will keep you awake when you’re trying to sleep.
  • Make your bedroom suitable for rest.  Keep it as dark as possible (add blinds at the windows as well as drapes/curtains) and use ear plugs to block out noise.  An eye mask for sleep may be a simplest thing you can do to help you sleep better as it blocks daytime light.
  • Leave the TV, video, computers etc in another room and make your bedroom about sleep only.  There are more general tips for better sleep here.
  • If all else fails, short term sleeping pills may help.  To find out more about prescribed sleeping pills look here and there’s an article about herbal sleeping aids here.

Elspeth Raisbeck

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