What do the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill all have in common? While each of these disastrous events are widely believed to have been detrimental to the environment and have, to varying degrees, caused devastation to life on Earth, all of these events have been linked to some form of human error caused by sleep deprivation.

In other blogs, we’ve covered how our circadian rhythms help to regulate our sleep cycle. As humans, we’re diurnal animals–meaning that we don’t naturally function during the nocturnal, nighttime hours. If you’re one of the country’s typical 9:00 am-5:00 pm types, for you, staying in tune with your circadian rhythm means going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day… even on weekends. But if you’re working a job with non-traditional hours, following your circadian rhythms is practically impossible.

Because our circadian rhythms are relational to our exposure to sunlight, our bodies are primed to be sleepy when the sun goes down and reinvigorated when the sun rises the next morning. So, if you work overnight or shift work, your sleep schedule will be in direct conflict with your body’s natural impulses.

According to the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, more than 22 million Americans work evening, rotating, or on-call shifts. Lack of sleep has been proven to negatively affect one’s ability to be attentive, to concentrate, and to react quickly while also proving detrimental to mood and memory. Because of their difficulty in falling and staying asleep during daylight hours, shift workers get a daily average of two to four hours less sleep than normal.

To maximize the quality of your sleep, life, and health, follow these 5 shift work tips:

  1. Nap often: Indulge in a 90-minute nap just before you head into work, and, if possible, take another quick nap on your lunch break.
  2. Maintain a sleep schedule: If your work schedule permits, go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. However, if you work a rotating schedule and a consistent sleep schedule isn’t in the cards for you, you can still take actions to minimize these disturbances. See the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center’s chart for adjusting to a rotating schedule.
  3. Eat healthy, regular meals: Working as a shift worker can have a negative effect on your health including an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, breast cancer, heart attack, and depression. While routine mealtimes can help regulate your internal clock, eating poorly and at irregular intervals can only prove more deleterious to your health. Also, beware of eating in the hours leading up to bedtime!
  4. Avoid caffeine before bed: As with any stimulant, stop drinking caffeine at least four to six hours before bedtime.
  5. Manipulate your light levels: Even though the sun might be shining when you’re supposed to be asleep, you can work to create ideal light conditions in your life. When you drive home from work, wear dark sunglasses to prepare your body for sleep by blocking out as much light as possible. Once you arrive home, go straight into your bedroom and draw the blackout shades to make the room completely dark. When you awaken for the day, a light therapy box can help you to replicate the daylight hours and cue your body that it’s time to rise and shine.