At Dawn They Sleep: Guide to Surviving Overnights

Posted: Jul 2, 2012
Views: 10788 - Comments: 17

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As I stated in my previous blog, overnights are hard. Health problems and cancer are very prevalent among overnight workers, sadly, and it's been suggested that if you work overnights you shouldn't work them for long periods of time. But the reality is that someone must work them. So how can we survive working overnight shifts and make the best of it? Here are some tips that I've found work for me, and also some tips found from research I've done (that I may or may not follow so well).

1. Black-out curtains: Easy to make with black fabric from a fabric store, but Target also has a brand of curtains made for this purpose.

2. Earplugs: I recommend ear plugs especially if you are a light sleeper or if you have housemates. 

3. Explaining to family and friends: Your new lifestyle isn't something people just understand, so explain exactly what this means to your life, and ask them not to call you during the day or have guests over. They won’t get it but it still may help. Also, don’t sleep with your cell phone next to you!

4. Vitamin D: Vitamin D is synthesized in humans in the skin from exposure to the sun. A lack of vitamin D has been linked to depression and musculoskeletal problems. You may need to see a doctor to get the dose that is right for you. Other vitamins/supplements may help as well.

5. Eat healthy: Your body naturally produces more insulin at night so you may have the urge to carb out. Don’t. Find an eating schedule that works for you and be consistent with it. Make sure to eat lots of fruits and veggies and try not to eat too many carb, sugar, or fat-heavy foods, your body will just store them. I got really into juicing fruits and veggies recently, and this has also become a replacement ritual for caffeine. It gives me a nice boost  in the “morning”. I've also found that I feel more dehydrated while working overnights, so I have a water bottle I bring to work and I always keep one by my bed. 

6. Limit caffeine: This is a tricky one. If you must drink coffee, it is best to drink one cup in your “morning”  to wake up and no more. Drinking coffee or other caffeinated drinks throughout your shift may make it harder to sleep when you get home. Tea is a healthier alternative to coffee and it will not make you as dehydrated.

7. Lights: Some research suggests the use of UVB lighting or light boxes to aid in the production of Vitamin D, and relieve some of the depression from lack of sun exposure. Some hospitals may offer special lighting to overnight workers and light boxes are available on the market for purchase for this purpose. I have yet to try it. At one point in my overnight career though, I did try tanning. While it did make me feel better, the risk of skin cancer and the sharp contrast of tan to my natural pallor made it not worth it. 

8. Melatonin: Melatonin helps regulate circadian rhythm, your body produces more in darkness and tells it when to sleep. Being exposed to bright lights at night disrupts this cycle. Taking melatonin before sleeping, even if you are already tired, helps restore this cycle. 

9. Routine: Trying to stay on a consistent routine sleep/wake schedule as much as possible. I struggle with this.

10. Membership to a 24 hour gym: Exercise is crucial in life anyway. Don’t cut it out of your routine just because you work overnights. Plus, it boosts your energy level! This will also help with depression, and gives you something to do on your days off when you are awake at 4am and no one else is. 

11. Hobbies: Having things to do at home late at night and also things you can do out in the world to keep you connected to society. I like to make jewelry at home on my days off, but I also play music with friends and we are able to practice in the evenings. Bowling leagues, dance classes, book clubs etc. also tend to happen in the evening.

12. Wear sunglasses on the commute home: Sunlight may trigger your circadian rhythm. Also, avoiding running errands or staying up after shifts.

13. Take naps: If you have things you need to do during daylight hours after your work shift, I would suggest going home, sleeping for 4-5 hours and then getting up and doing them. A nap later on in the day or early evening will help you feel more rested for your overnight shift that night.



Nikki Graf's picture

My physician recommended 5 mg of melatonin as the 'ideal' dose. It works like a charm for me. I stay away from diphenhydramine and Ambien as I tend towards a zombie when I 'wake up' from those!

Coby Richter's picture

Drink water. And more water. Great tips regarding caffeine and food. Keep drinking water. You might have to get up three times in the middle of your "night," but your brain and kidneys will be so much happier.

Dana May's picture

Taking a shower before bed and keeping the bedroom cool also helps you fall asleep. Lower body temperatures lulls the body.

Rosemarie Niznik's picture

Thanks for a great article on remembering to take care of ourselves. As caregivers and medical workers, we often care for everyone else first, work long hours, and neglect our health. Often, we fall into the trap of coffee, sugar, and junk food diet combined with little or no exercise just to "get through the hectic week". I know I did this summer! Thanks for the suggestions! I plan to add more fruit to my diet, get some more exercise, and start taking Vitamin D.

Ashley Versage's picture

As thirsty as I get during my overnights, I have to stop drinking water at least 2-3 hours before going to bed. My bladder is able to ignore the blackout shades and the quiet, forcing me to get up, which wakes the dogs and makes it difficult to go back to sleep. And yes to Dana's comment! Taking a shower before bed always helps me sleep better (and I use the sleep shower gel and lotion from Bath & Body Works)!

Michelle Crane's picture

I found getting my overnights grouped togther worked for me. On the days I work I know to get at least 7 to 8 hrs of sleep .If I can't turn my mind off I take bendryl it takes the edge off and I fall asleep faster on those days.I only drink coffee on the start of my shift or when its my last day on and I know I am not going to sleep right away. I drink mostly water in between . I also take supplements and vitamens to help when I can't eat approperiatly.

Becky Huskins's picture

When I'm scheduled for an overnight shift, I find that I MUST take a nap right before coming to work. Even just an hour or two "resets" my brain to think that I'm first waking up and starting my day. It tricks me into thinking it's "the morning" and helps me get through the night smoothly, instead of feeling like I'd been up all day and then first working a 12 hour overnight shift!

Rodney Gentry's picture

I take 5mg of melatonin to help get me in to the cycle of sleep when I work late shifts. However, my doctor did tell me not to take it all the time. I take the 5mg but I find that I feel 'hung over' when I wake up - so I've reduced it to the 3mg dose and it helps great! Highly recommend it, and.... its natural!

Lisa Fetzer's picture

When getting done working 12 hours, I go home and sleep in my spare room because I made it really dark, I will sleep at least 10 hours, I do have days that I cant sleep, Saturday nights are my last nights, Sunday morning when I get done I cant sleep until Sunday night (sometimes till 10pm,that means I'm up 30+ hours) I have no idea why, anyone help me with this

Elexis Comer's picture

I use a sound machine as well. It helps to drown out some of the noise in my house during the day. I also try to get some natural sunlight, even if for only a few minutes. This is my first year working this type of schedule and I was very sick last winter. Daily multivitamin, some real sunlight and sleep.

Tracie Vestal's picture

This is a wonderful blog, useful! I would add that getting specialized signs for the exterior of your house/apt. is extremely helpful in keeping those pesky daywalkers from knocking on your door

Rose Rucker's picture

Any tips for someone who works nights and days in the same week? I find it's really hard on me the first day, then I can get into a rhythm. However, by the time I adjust to the night shift, I have a day off then I have to switch to working during the day. Melatonin helps me sleep when I get home, but either way I feel poorly adjusted the first days of each shift.