Better sleep in shift work

In Germany, millions of people do shift work and the need to sleep during the day and work at night is part of the daily routine of many employees. Special rules can help to make sleep more restful. We show you how you can best deal with a changing sleep-wake rhythm.

Table of contents

      1. Shift work
      2. Our inner clock
      3. Sleep & shift work: What happens during shift work?
      4. Restful sleep in shift work
      5. Conclusion/At a glance

      Shift work

      Early shift, late shift, night shift. While some people are sleeping, others are on duty at the hospital, building cars on the assembly line, driving buses or taxis - or ensuring public safety. Almost one in six people in Germany currently works shifts or near-shifts - and the trend is rising. Shift work is not at all in keeping with human nature and can have numerous negative consequences on our sleep and health.

      Our inner clock

      All living beings on our planet - humans, animals and plants - have an internal clock that is located in certain brain areas and even in individual cells. It coordinates various metabolic processes in the body and, among other things, plays a decisive role in regulating the sleep-wake rhythm. At night, for example, our inner clock ensures that our blood pressure drops, breathing calms down and repair and recovery programmes are started. The sun and daylight function as an external stimulus that adapts our body to the natural daily routine and influences the release of important messenger substances, such as the sleep hormone melatonin or the stress hormone cortisol. However, the exact timing is different for everyone. Whether you are an early riser or a night owl also has a biological background.

      Grafik: Der Körper im Schlaf-Wach-Rhythmus

      Our inner clock also adapts to rhythms and routines, for example when we get up at the same time every morning. However, this adaptation doesn't happen from one moment to the next, but usually takes a few days. But what happens when our inner clock is disturbed and confused?

      Sleep & shift work: What happens in shift work?

      Shift work describes working at alternating times of the day and night. Shift workers therefore work at times when the body is programmed to sleep, and have to sleep when the organism has adjusted to being awake. This leads to problems, because the constant discrepancy between the internal and external clocks throws us out of balance. However, the negative effects on sleep do not come primarily from the change in sleeping and waking times, but from the frequent change. This is because we can't adjust to it quickly enough and over and over again.

      So when we go to bed after a shift change, it can happen that the body actually thinks it is the middle of the day. It then has a correspondingly high level of activity, which leads to problems falling asleep. As a result, shift workers do not get enough sleep and are unable to regenerate their body and psyche sufficiently. This has numerous effects on health and leads, among other things, to a higher risk of developing depression, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or cancer. Another result of the resulting lack of sleep is an increased risk of accidents and injuries. So how can we get restful sleep despite shift work?

      Restful sleep during shift work

      Sleeping after shift work is often a challenge. Generally helpful are of course general tips for sleeping and falling asleep. You can find these in the following articles, for example:

      However, you can prepare yourself specifically for your respective early, late and night shifts and improve your sleep with a few little tricks.

      #1 Early shift

      Bild: Frühschicht Krankenhaus/Pflege

      During the day: An extended nap to compensate for getting up early can make it difficult to fall asleep in the evening. A short power nap after work, on the other hand, gives you new energy without tiring you out.

      Before sleep: plan dinner, TV with the family or other activities as early in the evening as possible, and before going to bed, it is best to relax and wind down with the lights dimmed. Smartphone, computer and other blue light sources should be avoided in the last hour to avoid disrupting the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.

      #2 Late shift

      Bild Spätschicht Gastronomie

      The sleep phase after a late shift corresponds most closely to our normal biological sleep-wake rhythm and therefore allows for deep and restful sleep. You can use this to reduce sleep deficits from early or night shift phases.

      During the day: In order to start the late shift refreshed and fit, a short power nap before work can help.

      Before sleep: Avoid too heavy meals, sporting activities and blue light sources after the end of the shift so as not to disturb falling asleep. Also, refrain from setting an alarm clock and sleep in best according to your own need.

      #3 Night shift

      Bild: Nachtdienst

      During the day: At night, when the body is supposed to be ready for sleep, it is particularly difficult to stay awake. An hour or two of sleep before work and short power naps during night breaks can help your performance and alertness.

      During work: The internal clock ensures that the organism shuts down during the night. A bright and well-lit work environment supports alertness and inhibits sleep-inducing melatonin production. To counteract strong fluctuations and the nocturnal drop in blood sugar, heavy meals should be avoided. Better: eat several small meals at night and schedule the main meal for after the sleep period during the day. Those who do not want to do without the classic wake-up stimulants such as coffee or energy drinks should consume these only at the beginning of the night shift if possible - otherwise the caffeine they contain may have a negative effect on falling asleep later.

      Before sleep: Already towards the end of work and especially on the way home, bright (sun) light should be avoided, because now the melatonin production should be promoted to make it easier to fall asleep. To increase your tiredness it is advisable not to do any strenuous activities or sports between the night shift and going to bed.

      At a glance

      Early shift Late shift Night shift

      ✔ Short power nap after work

      ✔ Dinner and activities as early in the evening as possible

      ✔ Shut down before bed, put away smartphone, etc. and relax

      ✔ Short power nap before starting work

      ✔ Light meals, minimal exercise and few blue lights after end of shift

      ✔ Don't set an alarm and sleep in

      ✔ One to two hours of sleep before starting work

      ✔ A bright and well-lit work environment

      ✔ Coffee or energy drinks only at the beginning of the shift, several small meals during work and the main meal after the sleep period during the day

      ✔ Shut down before going to bed, avoid bright (sun) light, sports and strenuous activities

      Shift work has a wide variety of negative effects on our everyday lives and requires a great deal of stamina. Sleep as a central recovery period must not be neglected under any circumstances. Because regeneration is not only important for our performance, especially in changing shift work, but is also fundamental for our health and well-being in both the short and long term - and that is our most valuable asset.

      Best regards and see you soon!

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