Getting sleep back on track

Find ways to sleep better from working different shifts or after a short-term disruption in your regular sleep habits.

For many adults simply getting an adequate amount of sleep each night can be a challenge. However, when there is a disruption with sleep habits, such as shift changes at work, crossing time zones or international travel, it can be a challenge for your body and mind to return to normal. This can lead to feelings of “jet-lag,” a common term used to describe the physical and psychological effects of travel across time zones.

Humans have circadian rhythms that naturally regulate our biological systems, such as temperature and hormone levels every day. These rhythms act as a biological clock so that in a 24-hour period the body experiences periods of sleepiness and wakefulness. This usually aligns with our environment so that when it’s dark outside we feel drowsy and when it’s light outside we feel alert. When individuals travel across several times zones or are working a night shift, the circadian rhythms are no longer in-line with the environment, often leaving feelings of drowsiness when one would want to be alert. These rhythms take a while to adjust so that we may often feel groggy, find it hard to adjust to the new routine or simply getting back into the original time zone for several days.

Michigan State University Extension says that there are some actions that can be taken to help alleviate some of the symptoms from sleep disruptions.

For traveling across time zones:

  • Get outside – daylight is a natural stimulant that the body responds to. Being indoors can make jet-lag worse.
  • When boarding a plane, change your watch to the time zone of the destination.
  • The ideal flight is one that arrives early in the evening. If possible, stay awake until 10 p.m. local time.
  • If a nap is inevitable, short naps are best, but taken no later than early afternoon and no longer than two hours.
  • Avoid heavy meals or strenuous exercise close to bedtime.

For shift workers, sleeping during the day and staying awake and alert during work time can be a challenge. Try these strategies to help cope:

  • If possible, take a short nap during the shift.
  • Working with other people around can increase alertness.
  • During breaks, go for a walk, stretch or do some other exercise to keep the body active.
  • Try drinking a caffeinated beverage to stay alert during the shift, but beware of timing – drinking a caffeinated beverage too late in the shift may prevent being able to sleep after work.
  • Keep to the same sleep/wake schedule, even on non-work days.
  • Noise and light can be inhibitors of sleep – try to block them out with ear-plugs, white noise such as a fan and a mask or blackout curtains.
  • Avoid caffeine and heavy meals close to bedtime (a light snack is fine).
  • Avoid alcohol, which can disrupt the amount of sleep.

Adequate sleep and feeling rested is essential for good health, productivity, memory retention, weight maintenance and managing health conditions. For more strategies on healthy living, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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