It’s difficult to stick to a regular sleep schedule when you work nights, testified five employees at Humboldt’s Monarch Cement plant.
“I’m almost constantly drained,” said Ed Splechter, a swing shift production operator who works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. two days a week and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. three days.
Sleep comes easier after a 3-11 shift, but is nearly impossible after 11-7. “I don’t get steady sleep. I wake up about every 45 minutes,” he said.
Chip Tiegreen, a heavy equipment operator who has worked nights for almost 17 years, said he’s adjusted to the schedule but still has trouble sleeping.
“About once a month, you have a day when it just zaps you. You’re just done and you don’t do anything,” Tiegreen said. “If you can get five-and-a-half, six hours of sleep, that’s a good night.”
Shift workers suffer from sleep disorders and associated health problems at higher rates than the general population. Judy Works, who serves as the nurse for Monarch employees, said she regularly speaks to employees about sleep and tries to educate them about its impact on health.
Robert DeLaTorre, a surge pile operator, understands it’s important to sleep well, exercise and spend time with family in spite of a challenging schedule. He spends about an hour on a treadmill each day after work.
“You really don’t have time to take care of your body,” DeLaTorre said. “You’re pretty much tired all the time, but you just do it.”
It’s difficult to go to sleep immediately after work, especially if the sun is up and everyone else is getting started with their day, Brad Davis said. He’s a production attendant whose job demands constant movement. That helps him keep more physically fit.
Phillip Coronado takes advantage of his unique schedule, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. five days a week, to have coffee with his wife every morning and take his grandchildren to school. When his kids were little, he ate lunch with them at school every day and never missed their after-school activities.
“If I get a solid four hours of sleep, that’s good,” he said.
AN ERRATIC sleep schedule causes numerous health problems, Dr. John Nelson, a pulmonologist and sleep specialist who serves as medical director of Allen County Regional Hospital’s sleep lab, said.
That’s because our bodies haven’t kept pace with technology, especially when it comes to artificial light, he said.
“Until about 1890, our ancestors usually got up when the sun came up and went to bed when it got dark,” he said. “They didn’t have the problems we have as a society.”
Humans would fare better if they kept to a similar pattern, he said. The ideal situation is to wind down in the evenings, sleep between nine and 10 hours each night, wake up, be productive and repeat the pattern each day, Nelson said. That keeps people in sync with their “circadian rhythm,” a 24-hour sleep/wake cycle.
“We are genetically programmed on that phase, and we have not been in the modern age long enough to adapt to all the changes we’ve brought on ourselves,” Nelson said.
Instead, artificial light allows people to work all hours, day and night. Society depends on people like emergency responders, production workers and others who keep things running or protect the rest of us while we sleep.
People don’t prioritize sleep, Works said, and people who sleep more may be viewed as lazy.
“Society has changed a lot in the last 40 years. There’s a perception that people need to be productive and they don’t perceive sleep as being productive,” Works said. “But more sleep really would make the rest of their productivity better.”
CARDIOVASCULAR disease. Heart attacks. Blood pressure problems. Stroke. Cancer. Diabetes. Obesity. Dementia. Those are some of the chronic diseases caused or worsened by poor sleep.
Studies also have shown a relationship between sleep and Alzheimer’s disease, Works said. She tailors her message to people who have a family history of certain diseases and shows how adequate sleep offers both short- and long-term improvements. When people connect sleep to their specific risk factors, they’re more likely to make changes.
Few hesitate to take medication to regulate blood pressure because they understand the need to protect their heart, Works said. But people often fail to recognize how sleep can regulate many aspects of health.
“I wish they could better understand the brain is an organ, too, and we need to protect it,” she said. “It’s not a pill that protects it. It’s lifestyle changes and making a healthy choice to get enough sleep. There are immediate benefits and you’re going to live longer. We know it shortens your lifespan if you don’t get enough sleep.”
For most people, adequate sleep doesn’t even make the list when it comes to organizing priorities, she said.
“It really needs to be a priority, but life gets in the way and that’s really hard,” Works said. “I understand it’s really hard, but so is having a heart attack or a stroke or Alzheimer’s disease. Sleep is so important.”