Respect the Rhythm

Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. This internal body clock is composed of thousands of neurons, or nerve cells, found in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a small gland, about the size of an almond, located near the base of the brain. It has many functions including controlling the hormone system. It also has a significant role in the function of sleep regulation. Light is the main cue that activates alertness and dark is the cue that causes the hormone melatonin to be secreted, leaving us feeling sleepy.

None of us are superheroes. Our bodies cannot go-go-go without adequate periods of rest. Shiftworkers, in particular, must develop strategies to cope with staying awake when the body wants to sleep. Because light signals the brain to be alert, lights should be on in the control room during night shift. Dark sunglasses help to minimize the sun’s alertness tendency while driving home after working a night shift, and blackout shades in the bedroom allow the brain to sleep in daylight hours. What are your strategies?

The purpose of this article is to remind you that there are times within every 24-hour cycle where our alertness is high and there are times when it is low. Shiftworkers must be keenly aware of their physical need for adequate sleep and their need to remain alert on the job as professionals.

Many shiftworkers exchange shifts at 6:00 am and 6:00 pm. Some live as much as an hour from their worksite which means a wake-up time of about 4:00 am in order to report for a typical 12-hour day shift. To wake up at 4:00 am and achieve 8 hours of sleep, a shiftworker would need to go to sleep at 8:00 pm the night before. That’s unlikely since they wouldn’t have arrived home from the previous day’s shift until 7:00pm or later. Eight hours into the shift, this shiftworker has already been awake for ten hours. And keep in mind that workload is generally higher during a day shift than a night shift. With more interruptions and distractions, plus the mental workload, even day shifts can prove to be a fatigue management challenge for shiftworkers to balance. One must consider start/stop times, commute times, amount and duration of tasks, amounts of sleep, and individual differences when planning their schedule to minimize disruption of their circadian rhythm.

Fatigue at any time of day may disrupt motor skills, mood and decision making. Our circadian rhythm impacts our fatigue levels and our mental energy. When alertness levels drop, you may be experiencing a ‘circadian dip.’ These dips in alertness typically occur during the afternoon slump (~between 1:00 and 3:00 pm) or in the middle of the night (~2:00 and 4:00 am). Fatigue mitigation strategies are key during these periods! Stand up, stretch, walk, get a drink with or without caffeine, or talk to a coworker.

It’s imperative that shiftworkers schedule sleep as a priority. Communicate your needs for sleep with your family and garner their support. Maintain a designated room that’s quiet, cool, dark, comfortable and clutter free to allow your mind to relax. If you have recurring thoughts and concerns that plague your mind, keep a pen and paper at your bedside table and transfer those thoughts to paper. You can deal with those in the waking hours. Eating protein a couple of hours before sleep keeps you satiated during sleep.

Prioritize your health and get plenty of sleep to stay alert on the job and behind the wheel!

Scarlet Knight © 2023 Please Distribute to Others.

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