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Jet-lag & night-shifts


We all have biological clocks which are synchronised to our environment, to the natural rhythms of daylight and darkness, with most of us being hard-wired to be active during the day and asleep at night.

Our natural rhythms can be disrupted as we try to keep up with things happening in our lives, such as if working night shifts, travelling across time zones, socialising into the night hours, parenting, studying through the night to meet deadlines, and so on.  These may be temporary disruptions, resulting in the tired, uncomfortable, out-of-sync feeling of jet-lag after international travel; or the sleep deprivation felt throughout the day after getting no sleep the night before.

Often these can be ongoing disruptions to our biological rhythms, in the case of working irregular shift patterns or night shifts, with long-term disruptions to the sleep pattern potentially contributing to mental or physical health issues, and towards developing a sleep disorder.  There may be no cure for jet lag, or no choice but to be working during the night, but there are things to try that may help manage the impact of the sleep disruption.

Managing jet lag:

  • Consider staying on home-time if only a short trip of 2-3 days. Continue to sleep, eat and be active at the usual times you would when at home.  This may help prevent the onset of jet lag symptoms upon your return and help the body stay in its usual sleep pattern.
  • Reassure yourself that the symptoms of jet lag will only last a few days, so prioritise rest and relaxation during this time. If you take a nap, try to sleep for no more than 30 minutes to prevent going into a deep sleep.
  • Eat at regular meal-times to help your body adjust.
  • Gradually phase your sleep/wake times by an hour a day, being an hour earlier or an hour later depending on the time zone you’re adjusting to.
  • Our body clocks generally find it easier to adjust when travelling east to west than west to east, and that means you may find staying awake until night-time is an easier way for your body to adjust to the time zone you are in.

Consider staying awake and follow the below tips for when your body clock is out of sync with your usual sleep/wake times.

Managing night shifts:

Even for the hardiest night owls, it can prove difficult to stay awake and alert during night-time hours, yet many jobs demand just that.

20 ways to stay awake:

  1. Pace yourself – your energy may be low, and reaction times slower. Pace yourself and know your limits with exerting yourself or if too sleepy to drive or operate machinery.
  2. Take regular, frequent breaks – try to take regular, frequent breaks away from your work area and allow yourself to take breaks when you need them.
  3. Get fresh air – go outside, even if only for a minute or two at a time. Open a window if you can.  If sat on a computer, consider getting a desk fan.
  4. Get moving – bursts of exercise and physically moving the body regularly can help keep you awake and make you feel less tired.
  5. Have a cool shower – or splash your face with cold water.
  6. Eat energising food – eat foods that are light and energising, and avoid over-eating. Bananas are great for boosting mood.  Vitamin C is energising and orange juice or fruit can boost energy.    Avoid refined sugars or chocolate, which can cause a dip in energy levels. Consider taking a Vitamin D supplement to compensate for the lack of daylight.
  7. Drink water – it can be easy to become dehydrated when staying awake through the night, which can tire the body even more. Water naturally energises the body and will help you stay awake.
  8. Don’t rely on caffeine – but get a coffee if you need to. Try to avoid coffee within 5 hours of wanting to sleep.
  9. Focus on something else – try to occupy yourself with something absorbing that takes your mind off sleep.
  10. Encourage yourself – have some encouraging mantras to refer to when struggling with tiredness, ‘only 3 more hours to go’, ‘I can do it’, ‘I’ve been this tired and gotten through it before and it was ok’, ‘this feeling will pass’, ‘I just need to take a break for 5 minutes to waken up a bit’, etc.
  11. Keep it cool – warm, cosy rooms can encourage dozing so open the windows and let fresh air in.
  12. Talking – chat to your colleagues, phone a friend who’s awake, or put the radio on.
  13. Music – listen to some upbeat music.
  14. Energise your breathing – focus on deep inhalations of air for 5 seconds, feel the oxygen pass through your body then breathe out for 5 seconds as though blowing out a candle.
  15. Pressure points – massaging specific pressure points can sometimes help keep you awake. Try lightly pressing your forehead between your eyes.
  16. Aromatherapy – some aromatherapy oils and scents are renowned for their energising properties, such as citrus scents, lemongrass, green tea, etc.
  17. Take a power nap – don’t sleep for more than 20 minutes to avoid going into a deep sleep.
  18. Avoid anything too relaxing – try to avoid things that can induce sleepiness, such as reading, repetitive activities, or lying down.
  19. Keep it light – keep the lighting bright and consider using a daylight lamp to wake you up.
  20. Mindfulness – if all you can think about is sleep or how tired you feel, Mindfulness meditations can help clear the mind and help you cope with the sleep-related anxiety. Try using a Mindfulness app, such as Headspace or Calm.

Managing night shifts can be tough, so:

  • Try to get a good sleep after your night shift, for at least 7-9 hours. The longer you stay awake after your shift, the more awake you may become, so aim to go straight to bed when you get home.
  • Keep it dark, cool and quiet – invest in ear plugs and an eye mask, and minimise all disturbances.
  • Tell people you live with that you are on nights and the hours you’ll be asleep during the day, to avoid being disturbed.
  • Work backwards – if working a rolling shift pattern, it can help your body to adjust if your shift pattern rolls backwards rather than forwards.
  • Space them out – try to work any night shifts over weeks, rather than days. This gives your body time to adjust and helps regulate sleep.
  • Give yourself time to adjust, before and after your night shifts. The effect of transitioning from night to day shifts can feel similar to jet lag and you may need to factor in extra rest and self-care.
  • Extra self-care – it’s okay to make time to focus on relaxation and rest, doing things that make you feel good, so that you can recharge and recalibrate. You may feel extra tired after working nights due to your body being out of sync with your body clock.
  • Be kind to yourself – prepare for mood changes as a result of sleep deprivation, ranging from low mood to irritability, confusion and tearfulness, and reassure yourself that this will pass. Get support if you feel overwhelmed or notice any ongoing changes in your mood.
  • Know your limits – don’t be bullied into working hours unsuitable for you if they are making you unwell. Sometimes you may just need a normal night’s sleep.
  • See your GP – If you feel your night shifts are affecting your wellbeing, see your GP for support and advice.