Dr. Randy Martin: It is reported that 16 percent of Americans work the night shift and unfortunately, many of those workers are sleep-deprived. In fact, it is a problem that has been highlighted in the news recently with air traffic controllers falling asleep at night. In general, we are a sleep-deprived society. I spoke with Dr. Jeff Michaelson, a sleep specialist at Piedmont Hospital, about how sleep deprivation affects our health and our safety.
According to Jeff Michaelson, M.D., a pulmonologist and sleep specialist at Piedmont Hospital, sleep deprivation is a big problem in our society, especially among the 16 percent of Americans who work the night shift. “There are really two sleep-related issues with people who work at night. One is circadian rhythm disorder and the other is sleep deprivation,” he says. “Circadian rhythm disorder refers to the body’s propensity to be aligned with the light and dark cycle.” He says the body reacts negatively because it expects to be asleep during dark hours.
The problem with sleep deprivation, says Dr. Michaelson, is that night shift workers “are really never able to get back at home and get a good night or day’s sleep, and be fully rested before they go back to the next shift.”
Dr. Michaelson says, “Patients who are sleep-deprived are going to have sleep-related mistakes when they are at work and that’s been shown in several studies. In fact, when you look at people who have been sleep deprived, they are driving just like someone who is intoxicated with alcohol.” Sleep deprivation can also cause gastric ulcers, depression and an increase in rates of morbidity.
It is possible that napping is a solution, says Dr. Michaelson, “but studies haven’t really shown to what degree a proper nap would be to make sure that your performance isn’t jeopardized. But there’s a problem with that as well, called sleep inertia; that’s when you remain a bit groggy after arising from a nap.”
So what are the best solutions for people who have to work at night? Dr. Michaelson recommends wearing dark sunglasses that block out sunlight when driving home in the morning after work. He explains that once the sun hits your brain, it is a signal to start going again. Social activities, such as taking the kids to school or having a meal, can also disrupt your ability to fall asleep. He suggests rotating your shifts so if you are working several nights in a row, you have an equal amount of time to sleep after each shift.
Dr. Randy Martin: As you can see, sleep deprivation carries some major consequences. Make an effort to get a proper amount of sleep – for adults, that is often seven to nine hours – and try Dr. Michaelson’s tips if you must work the late shift.