Wellness

Coping with Post-Shift Insomnia

A woman in bed with her arm across her eyes.
It can be tough to fall asleep after a hectic, late night shift. Fortunately, there are tricks to settling down and getting some shuteye. Photo via iStock/Geber86.

It might seem counterintuitive to some, but finishing up a busy night shift at a bar or restaurant can leave many people feeling keyed-up and full of energy. That can make falling asleep harder, even in the wee small hours of the night.

Researchers estimate that between 5 to 10 percent of night shift and rotating shift workers, including hospital workers, police officers and, yes, bartenders, suffer from diagnosable "shift-work sleep disorder.” But most people who work night shifts experience trouble sleeping once in a while.

“I think because it is a job which also requires physical activity, it's almost like exercising right before bed, where you need some time to wind down,” says Michelle Fanciullo, a bartender at Martha Washington Hotel in Chelsea who is also studying to become a psychologist. “I've found that falling asleep was even more difficult when I worked at bars that were walking distance from my house, so I was literally getting into bed right after my shift finished.”

The good news is that there are steps that can help people working nights to sleep better. Fanciullo uses melatonin, a commonly recommended supplement, to help regulate her sleep cycle. “The melatonin totally knocks me out in about 20-30 minutes, but I have noticed that when I force myself to fall asleep with melatonin I do wake up multiple times during the night, which never happens to me normally. Nonetheless, it definitely does the job to get me back on a ‘normal, functioning human’ schedule.”

Getting regular exercise can also help ensure good shut-eye. “I’ve tried many things and none of them have ever taken,” says Quinn Hushion, the General Manager at Ward III in Tribeca. “I will note that when I am working out and hitting the gym, I have much greater ease falling asleep at night. My theory is that the gym helps me burn off all that excess hyperactive energy I have and brings me closer to the sleep cycle of a normal human. The gym isn't a panacea for my sporadic sleep cycle, but it helps.” This is a research-backed idea, as one study found that irregular shift workers who increased their physical exercise reported a better sleep quality.

Maintaining a regular sleep schedule, even when you don’t have work, can also be helpful to maintaining your sleep cycle. For, Hushion that means not sleeping past 1:00 p.m. on his day off.

Dr. Michael Thorpy, the director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center, recommends avoiding stimulants like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before bed. So, while it’s tempting to enjoy an after-hours nightcap with coworkers, that late night alcohol is likely to wake you before you get a full 7 to 9 hours of sleep.

“The pressure can be intense to just grab ‘one drink’ after you close up,” says Fanciullo. “Of course it is never one drink, and you end up getting home at 8:00 a.m. and your sleep is ruined for like a week.”

Many doctors recommend light therapy, which has been shown to help shift workers get a good night’s sleep according to a number of studies. Light therapy involves spending a specific amount of time around a special lamp or light box in order to adjust your body’s circadian rhythms. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a non-profit science organization, it’s best to provide your doctor with the details of your schedule to help create a personalized treatment plan.

Chronically bad sleep can lead to a higher risk of negative health effects, from depression to cardiovascular disease. If you have ongoing trouble sleeping that behavioral changes don’t seem to help, consider consulting with your doctor.

You can also take this quick screening survey from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School to help determine if you should seek medical treatment.

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