More than half of YouBeauty readers confessed to having trouble staying awake while driving, eating meals or engaging in social activities within the past month. With 52 percent of us walking around like zombies, it’s no wonder “The Walking Dead” is such a popular show. But is this struggle to keep our eyes open during the day the real horror story in our lives?
After working up to 16-hour shifts as a cook in a restaurant, 25-year-old Emily* found it hard to unwind and sleep for more than five hours a night. That vicious sleep cycle has sent her into a tired tailspin she struggles to break. Lindsay*, 30, a jewelry designer, also can’t manage to get more than five hours of slumber each night. “I never feel rested,” she says. “My body is tired, but my mind is not.”
Bianca*, 31, who works nights as a nurse at a New York City hospital, is lucky to get six hours of sleep between shifts and sometimes takes Benadryl just to help her fall asleep during daylight hours. “I constantly feel jet-lagged,” she laments.
They have all described symptoms akin to shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). “Those with SWSD often report excessive sleepiness during work times and insomnia during the off hours when sleep is desired,” says YouBeauty sleep expert Shelby Freedman Harris, Psy.D. “Other symptoms may include headaches, weight gain, gastrointestinal issues, fatigue, attention and concentration issues, work absenteeism, irritability and depression.”
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Sheesh, the things we’ll do for a paycheck! But shift work isn’t the only burden that can affect your exhaustion level, as new mom Shannon* can attest. Although the 39-year-old typically gets a good night’s sleep, she admits that her active baby can tucker her out. After six sequential sleepless nights while her husband was out of town, Shannon lost her cool.
“[The baby] was up all the time and wouldn’t go back down,” says Shannon, recounting the fatigue and frustration that brought her to tears. “By the end of the week, I was a lunatic. I hated my husband and was so insanely angry with him. It got to the point where I knew I was being irrational, but I couldn’t help it.”
And understandably so. Not getting enough sleep not only affects your physical health, but also your mental health, making it hard to even enjoy the people and things you love. “Sleep helps with mood and decreases irritability,” Harris informs.
Working the opposite schedule from her husband, Bianca finds it hard to be able to spend much time with him. And when they do finally get the chance, she struggles to have the energy for their date nights.
“My husband jokes that I take very expensive naps,” shares Bianca. “I’ve fallen asleep at concerts, at a production of Julius Caesar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and on pretty much every subway ride home from work. I have definitely missed my subway stop because I was asleep.”
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Emily, on the other hand, is single and felt like she was missing out on socializing because she was so sleep-deprived. “The worst thing about being tired is not feeling like doing anything on your days off but having to catch up on your life and errands,” she says.
In addition to missing out on fun activities and spiraling into a rotten mood, a lack of sleep can have serious consequences—particularly, if you get behind the wheel. Not getting enough shut-eye can be just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. “Being awake for 17 hours straight leads to performance impairment equal to 0.05 percent blood alcohol content—0.08 percent or more is considered legally intoxicated,” says Harris.
After 24 hours straight of being up, that number doubles and your driving performance is equal to someone with the blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent—well beyond the legal limit.
Emily says that several of her colleagues have fallen asleep at the wheel on their way home. What’s more, she experienced first hand the kind of injuries that sleepiness can cause. While working her fourth day in a row on a 16-hour shift, she sliced through her finger. “I lost focus for a moment,” she says.Notes Harris: “People are more likely to get in accidents when fatigued and sleepy—worse when sleepy. Attention, concentration, reaction speed are all affected.”
READ MORE: Why Am I Such a Klutz?
Although nothing beats a good night’s sleep, there are some quick fixes that can help you get through the day when you’re exhausted. “Short naps earlier in the day are ideal,” Harris points out. “If you sleep well at night, a 20-minute nap before 2 p.m. can be very helpful and act as a little pick-me-up.”
Of course, many of us aren’t able to take a cat nap during the day, which is why we reach for that old reliable standby—caffeine. However, Harris is wary about recommending grabbing a cup of joe since the benefits of caffeine can backfire on you, keeping you up when you’re actually trying to sleep at night. If you’re sensitive to caffeine’s effects, Harris recommends steering clear of coffee, soda, chocolate and even tea after noon so the caffeine they contain won’t mess with your sleep schedule.
Thankfully, Mother Nature has an all-natural way of perking you up—it’s called sunshine. “A little bit of bright light can make you just as alert as a cup of coffee,” Harris promises. “Get bright light in the morning, eat breakfast in front of the window and, if possible, try to get bright light at work as much as possible.”
Sunlight may even provide a more important counterbalance for those dark evening hours. A study by researchers in Chicago and Taiwan confirmed that not getting enough light during the day can conversely affect your ability to sleep and your quality of life. As it turns out, people who work next to a window get 46 more minutes of sleep each night.
Obviously, you can’t always jockey for the coveted desk next to the window, but you can get some of the same benefits by stepping out into the sunshine at lunch, such as grabbing a bite outside or at least sitting near a window at the restaurant. And if you get groggy in the afternoon, take a quick break and go for a walk outdoors for 10 to 15 minutes for a little pick-me-up.