For most of her life, Carol Smith has never had much trouble with sleep. But all of that changed when she began working a 12-hour graveyard shift -- from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- as a 911 dispatcher.
At times, she says she's had to struggle to stay awake and alert on the job. "It was very difficult for me," she recalls. "I'd get real fidgety, and doing any kind of paperwork was hard because it was so tough to concentrate. At times, I felt so uncomfortable that I just wanted to crawl out of my skin."
But then Carol found relief. She participated in a sleep study at Henry Ford Medical Center in Detroit, and was diagnosed with "shift work sleep disorder" (SWSD), a condition that affects people whose sleep-wake and lifestyle demands are out of sync with their normal biological (circadian) rhythms. It consists of symptoms of insomnia or excessive sleepiness that occur as transient phenomena in relation to work schedules.
"I can breeze through my 12-hour shifts these days," Carol tells WebMD. "I only take the medication on the nights I work, and now I love working nights."
A Hard Day's Night
Sleep deprivation and related problems have become as American as caffeine-rich Starbucks coffee and 24-hour pharmacies. In the last 100 years, there has been about a 20% decline in total daily sleep time, says Gary Zammit, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Institute at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. The blame for that sleep deprivation rests with the fast-paced culture we live in, with more demands on everyone's time and the emergence of an around-the-clock, 24/7 society.
So whether it's your lifestyle or your personality traits, you may have joined the ranks of the bleary-eyed who are not getting all the shuteye their body needs. "Many people are staying up late surfing the net, or going to the supermarket at night because that's the only time they can get there," says Sonia Ancoli-Israel, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. "We've become so busy that something has to give, and for many people, it's sleep that they sacrifice."