How I Finally Fixed My Sleep Issues as a Shift Worker

Shift Work Sleep Issues 1

I’ve been working as a shift worker since August 2012.  At first I worked a second shift, which began at 1pm and ended at 10 or 11 pm.  This meant that by the time I got home and showered, I didn’t get to bed until around 2-3 am.  I actually found that I didn’t have too much trouble adjusting to this schedule, since it was almost like being back in college!

After a year, my schedule was changed to an overnight shift.  I worked either 7pm to 7 am or 4pm to 4 am.  I found that my body had a really hard time adjusting to this.  While I never had a problem falling asleep, my biggest issues was that my body would wake up on it’s own way too early!  On a good night, I could get 6.5 hours of sleep.  On a bad night I’d only get 4 hours of sleep.  This was something we discussed on my appearance on the Health Nuts Anonymous podcast.

Needless to say this was terrible.  I’d be groggy and exhausted the next day and really dreaded going to work.  When I got to work, I’d be able to power through the first couple hours, but as the night progressed, the fatigue would really set in.  That feeling where my eyes were dry and my brain was slow was with me almost all the time and affected me on my time off.

On top of this, my schedule was really having a bad effect on the BJJ Cavewife who happens to work a normal schedule.  She has this thing where she doesn’t like to sleep by herself, so she would wait up for me to get home… and then have to get up to start her shift the next morning!

As a self experimenter I wanted to get to the bottom of this.  The first step, as with any experiment, was to gather data,  so of course I enlisted the help of various gadgets to help me track my sleep.

Ultimately, I found that I didn’t like wearing anything on my wrist when I slept, so the easiest and most convenient solution was the Sleep Cycle app on my iPhone which is what I used to accumulate the majority of my data.

Now that I had a way to track everything, I experimented with a lot of different things to help me optimize my screwed up sleep schedule.  These are a few things that were helpful:

  • Blackout Curtains – Because we rented and couldn’t install curtains, we used a combination of these temporary shades and the always classy aluminum foil to make sure our windows blocked out every last bit of light possible.
  • UVEX Blue Blockers – I wore these from the moment I left work to when I set my head down on my pillow to minimize the amount of blue light I was exposed to.  I actually bought three pairs and kept extras in my backpack because I kept forgetting them at home or at work.  At only $9 it was more than worth it.
  • Melatonin MZS –  I was very cautious about using melatonin because I didn’t want to disrupt my body’s natural production, but when I used this form, it was pretty effective.
  • Integrative Therapeutics Cortisol Manager – I reasoned that it was the circadian induced spike in cortisol that caused me to wake up earlier than I wanted so I tried out this supplement that claims to help lower cortisol, and found that it helped me about 30% of the time.
  • Athletic Greens – I tried to take double or triple the usual servings on nights I had bad sleep in order to counteract all the oxidative damage and what not I was subjecting my body to (you can read my full review here).

To see some of the other supplements I experimented with, check out this post.

While all of these measures did help, they didn’t completely counteract the effects of working such a physiologically abnormal schedule.

This schedule exerted a heavy toll on my health and well being, but I was willing to grit my teeth and grind through it because of the financial rewards and time off it allowed.  BUT when I saw that it was starting to have an effect on the BJJ Cavewife and her sleep and health started to suffer, that’s where I drew the line, and knew that things had to change.

Somehow it was easier to ignore all the issues of sleep deprivation in my own body, but the moment I saw it affect a loved one, that’s when my eyes were really opened.

As you can see in the chart above, the moment I made this change my sleep improved drastically.

So what did I do to finally fix all of these issues?

I QUIT.

I found a job in another state with a normal conventional schedule and my sleep has been great ever since…. and here is the data to prove it.

Time I Went To Bed

Shift Work Sleep Issues 2

Here you can see that during the period I worked 1:00 pm – 11:00 pm, I would regularly sleep at around 2:30 am to 3:00 am.

Once my schedule changed to the overnight shift, I was sleeping on average at 4:00 am or 5:00 am.  Because my schedule switched regularly between a week of 4:00 pm to 4:00 am and 7:00 pm to 7:00 am, I think that’s why the average comes out to 5:00 am.

From the moment I changed jobs you can see that I started sleeping at the more regular 11:30 pm to 12:00 am.

I know that Mark Sisson and every other paleo/ancestral living guru recommends sleeping at 10:00 pm to 11:00 pm because that’s the closest to our regular circadian rhythm, so I can still improve.  But compared to sleeping at 5:00 am it’s a world of difference.

Time Spent In Bed

Shift Work Sleep Issues 3

This is a much scarier chart.  You can see that in the midst of working the overnight shift, at one point I was only averaging 5:30 hours of sleep.  Definitely not good.

But once I changed jobs, I was regularly getting at least 7:30 hours of sleep, which is the exact amount of sleep I need to feel amazing the next day.

Sleep Quality

Shift Work Sleep Issues 4

Another scary chart where you can see that at the lowest point my sleep quality got down to 55% when working overnight.  After I quit, the quality improved to 75%.

I’d like to get my sleep quality even higher and I think the key to improving it is to actually sleep earlier in the 10p-11p window I described earlier, but it’s difficult because of how late my BJJ classes run (which I’ve been attending more regularly now).

By the time I get home from class it’s 8:15 pm.  Then I eat dinner, shower, hangout with the BJJ Cavewife, and all of a sudden midnight rolls around!  I’ll need to figure a way to balance this out a bit more in the future, but right now I’m just super happy that I’m not a shift worker anymore.

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Final Thoughts

I know there are a lot of shift workers out there who’ve figured a way to make things work.  Unfortunately I wasn’t one of them.  For people that can make it work, there can be many benefits in terms of salary and time off, and the BJJ Cavewife and I definitely enjoyed these benefits.

It was this schedule that allowed us to do some of the amazing stuff we’ve done so I definitely don’t regret trying it out for a while.  It’s just that eventually the short term and long term effects on our health just didn’t make the trade off worth it anymore.

 

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