Tips for adjusting to the night shift

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Adjusting to light exposure, managing caffeine and food intake, and managing sleep environments can help clinicians adjust to the night shift.
Adjusting to light exposure, managing caffeine and food intake, and managing sleep environments can help clinicians adjust to the night shift.

One of the reasons I love working in the emergency department is because we do not have set schedules. We may work in the morning, evening, or at night. I like the variety because I am able to accomplish errands during the workweek that I may not be able to accomplish if I worked a 9 to 5 schedule. Working different shifts does come with a downside, as we have to work the overnight shift as well. Working at night and sleeping during the day can be very brutal, especially when you revert back to working during the day the very next week. Therefore, I created a list with some useful tips that I gathered from my own personal experience to help your body adjust to the sudden change in schedule.

Tip 1: Adjusting to light exposure

During your night shift, it may be tempting to turn the lights down to create a quieter, calmer atmosphere. This can actually be damaging to your sleep cycle because your body is going to know that it is nighttime and want to sleep. By keeping the lights on and creating a daytime-like atmosphere, you can try to trick your body into thinking it is still daytime.1 This is particularly doable in emergency rooms that do not have windows. When you drive home, you want to avoid sunlight to trick your body into thinking it is now nighttime. I often wear sunglasses if I am driving home and the sun is shining. In addition, before you leave for your shift, it is a good idea to close your blinds so that your house is dark when you get home. .

Tip 2: Managing your caffeine and food consumption

I love coffee. I am also extremely sensitive to it. If I drink coffee after 1 PM I am bound to stay up half the night waiting for the caffeine to run its course. Therefore, I have found that during the night shift I have to time my caffeine consumption. I will drink caffeine during the first several hours of my shift, but at a certain point—usually 4 to 5 hours into my shift, I will stop my caffeine consumption so that I can try to get a better quality sleep when I get home. If I drink it too late into my shift, I have a hard time falling asleep and I wake up easily.  When it comes to food, I have found that I need to bring quality snacks with me so that I can snack throughout my shift. If I eat an actual meal, it only makes me tired and I immediately want to go to bed. In addition, I try to bring healthy snacks such as protein, fruit, or vegetables to keep myself going. This can be hard to do, because usually at 4 AM all I want to do is eat potato chips or candy. When my resistance is down during the early hours of the morning, it is hard to say no to these delectable items.

Tip 3: Create a great sleeping environment

One of the reasons I love my bedroom is because of the amount of natural light it lets in. It is this same natural light that I find myself cursing when I am trying to sleep after a night shift. Therefore, I have found that light-blocking curtains and sleep masks tend to go a long way to help me fall asleep. I will often use ear plugs as well because the trash trucks and lawn services in my neighborhood can sound like World War III when you're trying to sleep. I also put my phone on silent mode, because listening to my phone ringing from the onslaught of text messages from those working during the day is the only stimulus I need to wake up. Once I'm awake, my body may sense it is daytime and that could be the end of my post-night shift sleep. Therefore, I try to avoid interruptions at all cost.

Usually by the time my body gets into a better night shift schedule it is time to go back to the day shift again. However, these tips and tricks have really helped me adjust as quickly as possible. In addition, they help me stay alert during each shift and get me ready for each subsequent night shift after that. I hope they can help you as well!

Jillian Knowles, MMS, PA-C is an emergency medicine physician assistant in the Philadelphia area.  

Reference

  1. Kam K. Sleep and the night shift. WebMD. Published November 29, 2011. Accessed May 21, 2017.
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