Shift Work & Sleep Apnea: Could Your Schedule Make Your Apnea Worse?

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If you’re working a schedule that requires you to stay up overnight and sleep in the day sometimes, you are engaging in shift work. This arrangement may result in the worsening of existing health conditions, such as sleep apnea.

Find out more about Shift Work Sleep Disorder and identify if your sleeping patterns may be making your sleep apnea worse.

night shift work sleep disorder

Shift Work Sleep Disorder

What is SWSD?

It is a sleep disorder that affects people who frequently rotate shifts or work at night, usually between 10 pm and 6 am.

There are about 20% of the US workforce who are involved in some form of shift work. As a result, their schedules often go against the body’s natural circadian rhythm, and individuals have difficulty adjusting to the different sleep and wake schedule.

This leads to a repeated or ongoing pattern of interrupted sleep, resulting in difficulty staying asleep and excessive sleepiness.


Most commonly, those suffering from Shift Work Sleep Disorder will have difficulty sleeping or have excessive sleepiness at inappropriate times (such as during a shift or in the middle of the day.)

Research on Night Shifts and Sleep Apnea

Several studies have been done on the effect of night shifts on sleep apnea. During sleep after a night-shift, the obstruction of air passages leading to the lungs increases, reflected as an increase in the ‘apnea/hypopnea index’.

Working at night also leads to the increase in the length of time breathing obstruction happens during REM sleep, and the number of times it happens even during arousal. This conclusively determined that the acute sleep deprivation often caused by overnight shifts worsens sleep apnea.

Another study was performed and found similar results, finding that there is a significantly more serious level of sleep apnea following a night shift, which worsens the adverse health effects of sleep apnea.

The recommendation is that those suffering from sleep apnea should not work at night, especially if their sleep apnea has not been effectively treated.

Challenges with Sleeping During the Day

Sleeping during the day can be challenging as it goes against circadian rhythms, which function as an internal body clock. The body clock uses natural body rhythms to signal to you when it is time to go to sleep and to wake up, which tends to occur at regular times every day.

This clock is also ‘set’ by exposure to daylight. In most adults, the level of sleepiness peaks between midnight to 7 am, and also causes mild sleepiness between 1 and 4 pm. It is thus harder to fall asleep in the day when your body expects to be alert.

Some researchers think that it may take as long as three years to adjust to a shift work schedule. Others believe that you will never fully adjust to an unusual sleep/wake pattern.

Even if you feel this applies to you, you can make the best of a bad situation with the following coping tips.


We know it isn’t always feasible to switch jobs or change shifts. Luckily, there are still ways to cope with your schedule, even when it isn’t ideal.

Here are some tips that may be helpful:

Schedule Your Meals

Regular mealtimes help to regulate your body clock and also let it know when you should feel sleepy. Have a hot meal while on the job, and avoid eating your largest meal within three hours of bedtime.

Naps are Important

Napping just before reporting for a night shift helps to make you more alert on the job. A nap of about 90 minutes is ideal.

If possible, naps during work hours may also help you stay awake and alert, like during the night shift “lunch hour.”

For those working high-pressure jobs that don’t allow for time to shake off post-nap sleepiness, about 15 to 20 minutes should be enough time for you to be fully alert again.

Sleep at the Same Time

Night shift workers should try to stay on the same sleep schedule every day of the week, even on off days. A regular sleep schedule will help align your body clock with your sleep pattern, and increase the quality of your sleep.

Rotate Work Schedule if Possible

Having a schedule that rotates clockwise helps your body adjust to the change more easily – for example, Day Shift, to Evening Shift, to Night Shift.

Supplements Can Help

Taking melatonin, a hormone that is released by the brain at night, appears to have a strong link to the sleep/wake cycle. You’ll want to consult with a health professional to make sure you’re taking the correct amount.

Light Therapy

Bright light exposure is a way to help you body’s sleep cycle adjust. Artificial lights which are bright can have a similar effect on the body’s clock as sunlight. For example, if you work at night, using light treatment in the evening can help. Avoid daylight when you come off work and go to bed.

Prepare Your Sleeping Space

Darken and soundproof your room as best as you can, and use white noise to mask disturbing noises. Enlist others in helping with childcare and household tasks.

A Team Effort

Your family will be vital in helping you to sleep better, by adapting to your unique schedule and sleep needs. Ask them to reduce levels of noise and light in the home during your sleep hours.

What to Avoid

While pills and stimulants can help you stay awake during work, they should be a last resort. Avoid caffeine within four hours of your desired bedtime, otherwise, it may keep you from being able to fall asleep after getting home.

Know Your Risk

Sleep Rite can run a sleep study to identify any existing sleep disorders and to uncover the severity of them, to help you achieve a better quality of sleep.

Performing shift work doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t achieve a good quality of sleep. Find out if SWSD is affecting your health and what you can do about it today.

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