New Information about Sleep and Shift Work

We’ve written extensively about the challenges many shift workers face as a result of not getting enough sleep. A few new studies provide more insight for those with sleep challenges.

A study published on Nov. 23, in the journal Current Biology, educates us about how sleep helps us cope with emotionally painful experiences. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep typically takes up 20% of a healthy human’s sleeping hours. During the dream phase of sleep, our stress chemistry relaxes allowing the brain to processes emotional experiences, taking the edge off difficult memories. There is a sharp decrease in levels of norepinephrine, a brain chemical associated with stress, during REM sleep. When we reprocess previous emotional experiences during REM sleep, we wake up the next day, and those experiences have been softened; they make us feel less emotionally charged. We feel better about them; we now believe we can cope.

Previous brain studies have indicated that sleep patterns are disrupted in people with mood disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. The findings of this new study offer a compelling explanation for why people with PTSD have a hard time recovering from upsetting experiences and suffer reoccurring nightmares. Their disrupted sleep keeps their experiences front of mind as opposed to facilitating the processing of painful events during a good period of sleep.

Another study found that feelings of loneliness results in restless sleep. Researchers at the University of Chicago say compromised sleep from feelings of loneliness adversely affect our health. An individual’s perceived connectedness with others is important to good health. Among study participants, higher loneliness scores were linked to significantly higher levels of fragmented sleep. This is important to shift workers because working shift work can make it difficult to maintain good relationships due to work schedules and the higher rates of stress shift workers often face.

Fatigued individuals working together as a team display better problem-solving skills than those who face their fatigue alone, new research shows. Teams are able to avoid the inflexible thinking fatigued individual’s experience. In a study published online in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, some soldiers were tested at the beginning of training when they were rested while others were tested at the end when they were exhausted from military drills, night watch duty, and a lack of sleep. Individual soldiers who were fatigued performed significantly worse on the tests than alert soldiers. However, teams of cadets performed just as well when they were tired as when they were alert. In situations where fatigue is a factor, decisions should be made by teams rather than individuals when possible, the study concluded.

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