Sleep and Shift Work

sleep Nov 09, 2022

Katie Breazeale, MS, RD, LD


Shift workers tend to take a beating with their sleep health. If you don’t work the typical 9-5 shift, then you know your days and nights may look backward affecting your sleep and the way you eat. Your circadian rhythm is disrupted and can wreak havoc on your sleep and meal patterns.


Research shows that shift workers are more likely to get 2-4 hours less of sleep than the average person. Research also shows higher levels of insomnia developed in shift workers, decreased work performance, higher body fat percentage, and decrease cognitive performance. 


I want to focus on sleep for shift workers, and then we will touch on meal patterns at a later time. How do you fix your sleep habits when your work is setting you up for failure?


The Bedroom

Your bedroom needs to be setup for optimal sleep.

  1. Keep it dark. Blackout curtains or even a facemask to help block out the light.

  2. Keep it cool. Set your bedroom the perfect temperature for you. Recommendation is 65 degrees.

  3. Keep it noiseless. There is a lot more traffic during the day and neighbors are awake being noisy. Consider earbuds or a sound machine.

  4. Keep it comfy. Sheets and blankets should suit your needs. Your pillow and mattress should also meet your firmness needs.



Caffeine tends to be primary food group for shift workers. You wake up and have a cup of coffee and then part way through your shift you may have a soda or energy drink and at the end of your shift you may grab one more beverage.


The goal is to restrict caffeine to the beginning of your shift so that you are ready for sleep when you get home. Try to stick to FDA guidelines of no more than 400 mg per day. 


Creating a New Sleep Pattern

Consistency is key with creating your sleep pattern. Ideally you would continue your regular hours even when you are off from work. This can be very challenging with kids and spouse’s schedule especially if that is your quality time with them.


Another tactic to try is to stay awake when you get home. Instead of immediately going to bed stay awake for a couple of hours just like you would if got off work at 5:00 pm. This helps with not oversleeping and getting up closer to your work time.


Napping can be your friend. The idea is to take a short nap of 2-3 hours when you come home for a little pick me up. Get up do a few things and then go back to sleep for 4-5 hours closer to your shift. For example, if you work 7 to 7 come, come home and nap till 10:00 am get up and then go back to sleep around 12:00 or 1:00 pm and sleep till 5:30 or 6:00 depending on your commute time.


Cognitive Unloading

This is a technique to get whatever is on your mind off your mind. You write down what you can’t stop thinking about. I hear this frequently from police officers that they cannot get their brain to turn off. Thinking about their day and everything that happened. This is one strategy to try. It is not like a diary where you must put how you feel. It is about having somewhere to put your thoughts. 


How you eat during your shift is very important, but it is its own article. Stay tuned for managing your diet and weight with shift work.


Staying Alert

During your shift it is important to be awake, obviously. Caffeine is okay just remember moderate amounts and at the beginning of your shift. 


Depending on your job and break time get moving do a light workout to get the blood flowing. Exercise and sleep share a tangled web. You exercise and you get the benefits of improved sleep. While if you have a healthy sleep-wake cycle you train better with improved strength and endurance. Another bonus, exercise is stimulating! Just make sure not to exercise to close to when you want to catch some zzzz’s. If you find you don’t get enough sleep at night and want to reorient your circadian rhythm, try incorporating regular exercise into your routine.


Ready for the challenge? Look at what is causing you sleep problems. Is the bedroom too bright or are you wired from all the caffeine you drank? Maybe you want to start exercising and need a way to not feel too tired to train.  

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