“Most people who work nights tend to short-sleep themselves,” said Mike Davis, RRT, RPSGT, a registered sleep technician in Memorial Medical Center’s Sleep Disorders Center.
The average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Of course, getting that kind of sleep can be difficult for most people—even if they work the day shift.
“If someone with a regular schedule loses one or two hours in a night, that’s not a big deal,” Davis said. “But people who regularly short-sleep themselves one to four hours may have health issues.”
Results of long-term sleep deprivation
According to Davis, long-term sleep deprivation can impair the body’s regenerative ability and can weaken the immune system, leaving you more susceptible to illness. Also, the irritability and emotional effects of sleep deprivation that we experience on a short-term basis can grow and more severely impact our lives—which may be why there is a noted link between sleep deprivation and depression.
Another potential casualty of sleep deprivation is weight—being overweight can lead to sleep issues, such as sleep apnea or hypoventilation; and lack of sleep can also lead to weight issues.
“A lot of people eat when they are tired in an attempt to stay awake,” David said. “To try to artificially manufacture energy, people turn to high-sugar foods, caffeinated sodas and coffee drinks with lots of calories. And when they’re tired, they can’t exercise as easily, so they don’t lose that weight. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Importance of REM sleep
So, what can night-shift workers do to combat the effects of sleeplessness?
For starters, they need to combat the sleeplessness itself.
“They need to maintain a normal bedtime—as normal as they can,” Davis said. “Go to bed at the same time and try to get up at the same time.”
And, as tempting as it may be, try not to get your rest in nap-form.
“Getting your seven to nine hours in chunks doesn’t really work,” Davis said. “It’s best to get it in one period.”
The reason for this anti-nap stance? You need to sleep longer than a few hours to achieve REM sleep.
“They don’t know for sure why you need REM,” Davis said. “Theories suggest it has something to do with memory processes. But, they do know this: If laboratory rats don’t get REM sleep, they die.”
So, when you get home from a hard night’s work, be sure to get a good day’s sleep—and try to get at least seven hours of it.