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Circadian science Shift Work

A space for shift workers, Pt. 2

Here again is our blog feature where we look on the internet for what folks are saying about their shift work, and try to speak to their experiences with the power of circadian science.

First up: 

Reddit User:
My shift is usually 7pm-3:15am. when i get off work i shower, eat, and watch some Netflix until i fall asleep around 5am, but then i’ll only sleep until around lunch when my body naturally wakes me up and i can’t go back to sleep. i end up spending the rest of the day anxious and anticipating going into work and feeling like i can’t do anything productive because i’ll be too tired to perform at my job. i’m a card dealer so i need to be alert and focused during my shift to count cards and do the mental math for payouts.

Sometimes i can squeeze in a nap in the afternoon but it can make me more groggy when i wake up. i’ve tried forcing myself to stay up a little longer after i get home from work but i’ll still wake up around noon and then i’m stuck with less sleep than if i had passed out right when i got home.

Any advice? i get so much anxiety about sleeping through my alarms or being so tired at work i pay someone wrong and it’s overwhelming sometimes. i want to try to keep this job for at least a year so i can pay off my debt and student loan but it’s becoming mentally draining


Our Take:

Reddit user, you’re not alone. Many shift workers experience the exact same thing you do—waking up after only a short time sleeping, post-shift. What you’re describing sounds like your body’s circadian clock swinging to wake you up after you’ve drained your homeostatic build-up, or sleep hunger, from working the night shift. In other words, your body clock is still pretty well adjusted to a day schedule, so it’s trying to wake you up to match the day. By the time noon rolls around, it thinks your circadian sleep window has passed.

The good news is that you can shift your body’s clock, so that your circadian sleep window happens when you want it to (like in the hours after your shift, instead of during your shift). Might make life a little easier, huh? You may be thinking to yourself that the process of “shifting your clock” sounds complicated, and you really don’t have time to add more to your plate. Well, here are two pieces of good news for you.

First, while understanding your unique circadian clock is complex, with a lot of moving parts, we’ve been working on a way to make it simple: simply hook our app up to the data collected from your phone (and wearables, if you own one). Living a circadian-aware life is something that anyone can accomplish, whether you work day shifts, night shifts, or somewhere in between. 

Second, it’s not about “the time it takes” to fix your clock— it’s about “the time” itself. Your normal activities throughout the day like eating, exercising, and looking at screens are all sending signals to your clock. When you start timing these activities correctly, the signals can help shift your circadian sleep window to where you want it to be. So what we’re really trying to say is, it’s not so much about the what of your day, it’s about the when of it.

Oh, and that grogginess you feel after a nap in the afternoon? That’s called sleep inertia, and it can be worse at some times vs. others. We can warn you when sleep inertia’s likely to be worse by tracking your body clock’s time.

There are a lot of things we’ve learned about what can help shift workers adjust to their schedules. If you’re looking for where to start, that’s where our app, Shift, comes in.


Reddit User:
I’ve been doing overnights for almost 3 years now (22:15-0645). It’s been decent for the most part, but the one thing I’ve consistently had an issue with is staying asleep. I’ll get off work, come home, eat breakfast, and be asleep by 08:45. I have no trouble at all falling asleep, but I wake up around 14:00 all the time. I was wondering if you guys have had similar problems? What did you do to stay asleep? Ideally I’d like to sleep until 15:45, as that would give me 7 hours of rest. Thanks for any help.


Our take:

Once again, this sounds like a problem caused by a body clock that’s scheduling sleep too early in the night (and missing out on the window of time you actually have available to sleep). 

Let’s dive into the science a little more. There are two main forces that work together to keep you asleep. One is the homeostatic sleep drive, or “sleep hunger,” which builds while you’re awake and the other is the circadian sleep drive, which rises and falls about every 24 hours. When you’re well-adjusted to sleeping on a day schedule, there’s a hand-off from your homeostatic sleep drive to your circadian sleep drive. 

Think of this as a baton relay race, where the baton is your sleep, and the track is the length of time you’re hoping to be asleep for. That makes your homeostatic sleep drive the first racer, and your circadian sleep drive the second racer. When your homeostatic sleep drive nears the end of its turn, there’s a hand-off to your circadian sleep drive in order to keep you asleep until the finish line. However, if your internal circadian clock is out of whack—or, analogy time, like the second racer isn’t where they need to be for the hand-off—the passing of the baton doesn’t go so smoothly. And even though you were hoping to stay asleep for the whole race, the fumbled hand-off wakes your body up hours earlier than you wanted.

There are many negative effects that happen when your circadian clock is off track with your schedule, and waking up in the middle of the night is just one of them. Luckily, this does not have to be permanent. The fact that you have the power to throw your clock a little off track, also means that you have the power to get it back on track. That’s what we’re here to help with.