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Health Information The Best of Both Worlds

Night shift workers are caught between two worlds. They work on a nocturnal schedule but live in a society that runs during the daylight hours. How can the two be reconciled? A new study published by researchers at Rush University Medical Center details how a compromise can be reached.

"Previous studies have shown the effectiveness of complete adjustment to a night shift schedule for improving nighttime alertness," says Mark Smith, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the Biological Rhythms Research Laboratory at Rush, "but we think that most real shift workers want to be awake on their days off." Using a combination of therapies, shift workers can achieve a level of flexibility, which is sufficient to be alert at work and still be awake on days off.

Light helps cue our body's clock to adjust to a schedule. Since sunlight is not available when a shift worker needs light exposure to stay alert, an artificial source of light, such as a light box, is essential. The study's control group displayed the confusion that results when this system goes awry. Members of the control group who did not receive light exposure during their night shifts and may have slept in partially lit bedrooms during the daytime were less able to adapt to their night shift schedule.

It's possible to apply the techniques that were successful in this laboratory study in the real world. If you regularly work the night shift, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and want to develop a more flexible sleep schedule but still be alert during your shift, follow these practices:

  • During your shift, expose yourself to light using a light box until 4:00 a.m. Fifteen minutes of exposure each hour is enough.
  • After your shift — if you do not drive home — wear dark sunglasses to prevent being exposed to daylight before sleeping.
  • Sleep in a dark bedroom.
  • Expose yourself to 15 minutes of afternoon light after you have slept.

Each of these elements is useful to ensure alertness and sleepiness at the proper times and to prevent your biological clock from completely adjusting to the nocturnal schedule. To maintain this biological compromise, Smith also recommends that shift workers sleep until noon on days off instead of waking up early in the morning.

For those of us who work during the day and are trying to keep to a regular schedule, Smith recommends maintaining your regular schedule even on weekends. If you sleep in too late on weekends, your body clock with drift to a later time, and it'll be that much harder to wake up on Monday morning.

More Information at Your Fingertips:

  • Founded in 1978, the Sleep Disorders Center at Rush was the first such center in Illinois. Since that time, the center has established a national reputation for clinical excellence, for innovation in sleep medicine research and for providing superior training to the next generation of sleep professionals. The sleep disorders team is multidisciplinary, including board-certified experts in psychology, neurology and pulmonary medicine. Visit the Sleep Disorders Center home page for more information.
  • Are you having trouble with your sleep? Click here to participate in an online conversation to help you focus on the specific sleeping problems you may be experiencing. During the conversation, you'll receive information about sleep disorders and suggestions on where you can go for assistance.
  • Looking for a doctor? Call toll free: 888 352-RUSH (888 352-7874).

Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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