New Study Sheds Light on Working Nights

Exposure to Light, Use of Sunglasses May Help Weary Night-Shift Workers Stay Alert

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 5, 2008 -- Night-shift workers of the world, wake up.

A new study offers tips that might make you more alert on the job and help you sleep better when you're off.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center found that participants who worked a simulated night shift and who were exposed during the wee hours to bright lights for five 15-minute periods became more alert, not immediately but later.

But it wasn't just the lights that helped them, says Charmane Eastman, PhD, one of the researchers.

People in the "experimental" group -- those exposed to the bright lights -- also were given dark sunglasses to wear on their way home and went straight to bed at 8:30 a.m.

Those in the experimental group slept in dark bedrooms between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. after the first two night shifts, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. after the third night shift, and from 3 a.m. to noon on two weekend days off.

People in a control group who also worked simulated night shifts weren't exposed to bright lights, were given dim but not dark sunglasses, and were allowed unrestricted sleep and all the exposure they wanted to outdoor light.

All 24 participants worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. with two days off.

Eastman and colleague Mark Smith, a postdoctoral fellow, conducted the study to try to make the participants' body clocks more normal. And they found the bright lights, the dark sunglasses, and enforced sleeping times helped the night workers become more alert and feel less abnormal.

The findings suggest that real shift workers could "set up light boxes where they work or in the break room" and eventually will feel better and sharper, Eastman tells WebMD.

"The sunglasses also are important," she says. "They cut out a lot of blue light, that light in the morning is what keeps real shift workers from adjusting. You go outside, that light tells your body clock it's morning. So the real night shift worker never adjusts. We're tricking the body clock to think night is day and day is night."