Sleep: the missing ingredient

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Tales from the night shift

You thought you had it bad? Night shift workers have the highest incidence of sleep problems. We got a few to tell their bleary-eyed sagas.


When you were in the Northeast, it was easy. Cities are close to each other. Philly to New York is a two hour drive, so you’d get in at 2am and sleep ‘til noon. But when you’re in Denver, the closest city is Salt Lake City, 500 miles away. The truck only does 55 miles an hour through the Rocky Mountains, so there’s basically no time for sleep for the merch guy. So on days off you’d sleep the whole day.

Four hours was the bare minimum to function as, like, a human. But you were a zombie. Five hours was almost acceptable, but you wanted to try to get six.

Somewhere out west – Washington or Oregon – on the Sting tour (it was the same tour where I wrecked the truck when I fell asleep at the wheel), we pulled into a gas station to rotate drivers. It was a gravel parking lot that was very bumpy. I’d just gotten up. I saw the bumps of the gravel. I was reading Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut at the time. I thought I was on the moon.

- Joe Gara

Toll collector

Swing shifts are the worst. It’s almost better to have the graveyard shift, which is 12 to 8. I had a week of days, then there’d be two weeks of nights, then a bunch of weeks of graveyard. So

I was always tired. I was young, 19 to 21, during the summers, but I didn’t want to do anything but sleep.

I remember distinctly having my arm off the bed collecting tolls while I was sleeping. I do remember waking up with my arm outstretched off the bed.

Even though I didn’t work any more hours than anyone else working nine to five, there was no demarcation between work and sleep. I didn’t feel like I had any leisure time. It was also hard to find people to do anything during the day.

But one really cool thing about working through the night at the Holland Tunnel was all of these tour buses would come through, and I was mooned by the Buddy Rich band. They pay the toll, and there’s like one ass after the other. That was in the 70s. Streaking and mooning were very popular that summer. There’d also be vans filled with Asian people who’d be opening up their restaurants in Chinatown, and they’d give me mai tais and wanton soup.

Port Authority would pay you differentials, so if you went home at 8 a.m. and then had to report to work at 4 p.m., they’d pay you like 25 percent extra because they realized that was a hardship. But it was brutal. It really shouldn’t be allowed.

- Pamela Chergotis

Newspaper editor

I worked a graveyard shift for a year and a half that was hell on my body. Despite blackout curtains, an eye mask, a noise machine and earplugs, it could be extremely difficult to fall asleep at 8 a.m. I would spend all day in bed, but not asleep. (And it took months to realize I needed the above items, during which time I was getting terrible sleep.) I live in New York City, where construction and road projects abound. One time there was even work being done on the exterior of my bedroom wall. Torture! The worst was a month-long period during which I was under a lot of stress and literally could not sleep for more than three hours at a stretch – maximum. One night I went into work having slept for only three hours ... but that was split among three separate hour-long naps. It was a struggle to stay awake at work, which frightened me; I didn’t want to make a mistake because of my exhausted brain.

That was the worst of it. There were other periods during that time in my life when I could come home and go straight to sleep, until about 5 or 6 p.m. You would think that a lousy schedule would make having a social life difficult, but as a co-worker once pointed out to me, “If you’re working when everyone’s sleeping, and you’re sleeping when everyone’s working ...” you both have the same free time to party!

- Lillie Dremeaux

ER doctor

I’m a night person, so being up all night is never a tough task. However, sleeping during the day and particularly on days that are sunny are really tough. I usually average about 3-4 hours of sleep during days between night shifts.

It’s really weird for relationships more than social life. No one in your social life notices when you aren’t there because there is someone else to fill that space. I miss out on my friends, but they don’t necessarily miss out on me. However, in a relationship, I think it’s hard. I can go days without seeing my significant other if I’m on overnights and they get home a few minutes after I leave for my overnight shift and then wake up to shower and leave for work before I get home from my shift. So it takes a very understanding and independent significant other.

In terms of after overnight shifts, it’s hard to readjust. Sometimes, when I’m post three overnights in a row, I find that I want to DO something, say on a Sunday day, but by 4pm, I’m kind of brain-dead after trying to be awake, and I will find myself literally hanging on to the pocket or arm of Drew, my boyfriend, to lead me around while we’re walking to go do something (usually while I say completely inane things...imagine those overnights you had as a teenager when you stayed up all night and by 4am. EVERYTHING was funny.)

And it’s hard because I get done at 7am on Sunday am and have to be back to “day” shifts at 10am on Monday. So it’s a shock to the body and brain to get back to “regular” sleep.

- Cara Brown

In 1960, Americans slept an average of eight hours a night. That number is down to six and a half hours, and we’re paying the price.

By Becca Tucker

Sleep is one of those things, like cleaning the house: you don’t think about it when it’s happening on the regular. Only when it’s lacking do we notice it – but then, by the time those dark circles have tattooed themselves under our eyes, we’re addled and desperate for the quickest fix: the four cups of coffee to get us through the work day, the sleeping pill, a couple glasses of wine before bed, crashing early on the couch in front of the TV. These things don’t help; in the long run, they do just the opposite.

[Excuse me. I’m off to grab my second cup of coffee to get me to noon. I couldn’t write another sentence without it.]

More and more of us are finding ourselves on this carousel. Americans filled a record 60 million prescriptions for sleeping pills in 2011, up from 56 million in 2008, and from 47 million in 2006. It’s bad news, and not just for co-workers who have to watch as you are reduced to tears by a printer jam. Lack of sleep is now being implicated in all sorts of grizzly, even life-threatening conditions, from depression to diabetes to cancer to obesity to dementia.

Of course, if the only time you think about sleep is when you’re not getting it, and when you’re not sleeping well your brain is foggy and your short-term memory is shot, it can be near impossible to pull yourself out of the quagmire without a little help. So Dirt sought out three professionals – a holistic healer, a health counselor, and the director of a hospital-affiliated sleep study center – to find out what’s keeping us up at night, and how we can get back to feeling human, even before that second cup of coffee.

The 12 days Fran Sussman was without power after Hurricane Sandy were the best nights of sleep she’d had in years. Sussman, a holistic healer, was going to bed when it got dark because there was nothing else to do. “I work ‘til 8:30 most nights, so I can’t really do that. But the more we can stick to the natural cycle, the better we feel,” she said.

“That whole early to bed, early to rise thing makes sense. Our systems haven’t evolved to keep pace with the fact that we can have life and light 24 hours a day.”

That sounds nice, but who can do that? Even if you had no obligations or social life, no laundry to fold or spouse to eat dinner with, it would be embarrassing to go to bed at 7pm. Right?

“Part of the problem is cultural,” said Sussman. “We see the need for sleep as weakness, and the ability to get by on four hours” as a badge of honor. For some reason, we’ve also decided that we need less sleep as we get older, which is categorically untrue. You need the same amount of sleep – for most of us, that’s between seven and nine hours – you got when you were a kid. Your sleep may become more fragmented as you age, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need the shut-eye.

Sussman and I are chatting in her home-office in Chester, NY over a cup of English rose tea, Sussman with her rescued toy terrier Lucy on her lap, snoozing. Lucy, all ten or so pounds of her, provides a counterpoint to the modern day overworked, overweight, over-stimulated American. She doesn’t care if people think she’s lame because she’s sleeping in the middle of company. Granted, if Lucy were human she’d probably be labeled narcoleptic, but the point is, she’s a paragon of chill.

People are coming into Sussman’s office “wired and tired.” Either they are exhausted but so stressed that they can’t fall asleep at night, or they crash, only to wake up over and over. At first, Sussman told them not to use electronics for 90 minutes before bedtime. “The light you get from phones, computer screens close to your face, activates the brain in a way that makes it hard to fall asleep,” she said.

But she soon found out that “people can’t do 90 minutes. It feels like their world is falling apart. I’m trying 45 now.”

How’s this for motivation? In a recent study, English researchers had one group of test subjects sleep for 6.5 hours and another sleep for 7.5 hours. After just a week, blood tests showed that in those who slept an hour less, genes associated with heart disease, diabetes and cancer became more active, as did genes linked to inflammation, immune response and response to stress.

“We call that hyper-vigilance,” said Sussman, of the stress response. “We all have stress in our lives, it’s how you react.” Hyper-vigilance, what a concept. Imagine: Sorry I smashed the jammed printer with a baseball bat, I was feeling hyper-vigilant because I was up all night with the baby. Or: That raving lunatic in the left lane who just flipped me the bird? I bet he’s acting hyper-vigilant because he didn’t get his eight hours.

But here’s the real ace in the hole, one that was reaffirmed by each of three sleep authorities we talked to: Not getting enough sleep makes you fatter. Sleep deprivation decreases your metabolism and biochemically creates cravings for crappy food, the one-two punch. “The old lizard part of your brain that’s supposed to be running in the background takes over for the prefrontal cortex,” said Sussman. “It wants quick sugars and carbs.”

[Excuse me while I un-wrap this Milky Way. It’s Monday, and it’s almost four p.m. You understand.]

People think they need more willpower, when in fact they just need more sleep. “I tell my clients: Get eight hours of sleep and you’ll lose a few pounds,” Sussman said.

The less sleep you get, the more you’re likely to weigh. The more you weigh, meanwhile, the worse you’re likely to sleep. An example: Gail Lordy, a holistic health counselor in Warwick, has a client whose “weight was in the 400s, and he had sleep apnea due to that.” Like most of Lordy’s clients, he had come to her to lose weight. His doctors were encouraging him to get lap band surgery and to go on medications, but he didn’t want to go that route.

Five weeks into his bi-weekly sessions with Lordy, “his biggest thrill,” she said, “was he was able to get into bed. He had been sleeping in a chair. He’s a young man. This will change his whole life.” To fix his weight problem, he first had to fix his sleep.

That inextricable relationship between sleep and weight is probably why business is booming at sleep centers. The population is heavier than ever, and suddenly you can’t find a sleep center that isn’t “newly expanded” and “state of the art.”

The Sleep Disorder Institute of St. Anthony Community Hospital moved off-campus in 2013 and doubled in size. Now it’s like a mini hotel, a four-bedroom affair with a good looking lobby on Main Street in Florida, NY. Between 30 and 40 people spend a night here each month, where they are hooked up to a web of sensors that record brain waves, breathing, blood oxygen, leg and eye movements.

One room has a special bed that can accommodate a patient up to 700 pounds, another has a crib-bed for babies and kids. Although the official line is that the bedroom should only be used for sleep and sex, there are TVs in the sleep study bedrooms, a concession to the real world. (The remote gets taken away at 11pm).

People come in for sleep studies for all sorts of reasons – chronic fatigue syndrome, periodic leg movements, narcolepsy – but the most common by far is sleep apnea, which is when the back of your throat relaxes and closes up during the night, and you actually stop breathing from a few seconds to as long as a minute. Sleep apnea is a “silent killer,” stressing your heart and eventually putting you at higher risk of stroke. Signs you might have sleep apnea include not having refreshing sleep, snoring, significant weight gain, heart disease, or if someone has heard you pause in your breathing while you sleep.

According to the official data, about two percent of women and four percent of men now have obstructive sleep apnea, but Dr. Deogenes DeLeon, the medical director at the sleep center, thinks that number is low. “The number of people with sleep apnea and related disorders seems to be increasing. Most are weight related, as the population gets heavier,” he said. “I treat the sleep apnea so the energy level’s good, so they can lose weight.”

DeLeon pours himself a Keurig coffee and sits down on a couch in the lobby of the sleep center. I’ll have a cup, too, thank you. He should by all rights be tired, since his three-week-old baby is sleeping in a crib near his bed. But he doesn’t appear frazzled. He sleeps great, which he laughingly attributes to excessive work in the daytime. And the fact that he always slept well.

“The funny thing about sleep is it’s a learned behavior,” he said. If you didn’t sleep well as a child, you’re not going to sleep well as an adult. He can get an insomniac who was sleeping two hours a night up to five or six hours, but they’ll never get to that magic number eight, he said. In those cases where people can’t sleep more than, say, six hours, he focuses on compressing those hours into one stretch. For instance, if you get up at six, then you’d go to bed at midnight.

“If you have interruptions,” whether from loud kids, the phone, sleep apnea, the chatter in your head, a crash in blood sugar, whatever, “that’s when people run into trouble,” he said.

The good news? You can catch up on at least some of your missed sleep. Miss deep sleep, the phase of the sleep cycle when short-term memories move into long-term storage, and it’s gone for good. But when it comes to REM, the lightest phase of the sleep cycle when you dream most vividly and process emotions, you can re-fill the tank. “All the REM sleep we miss out on, the body will have to catch up on – like on a weekend,” said DeLeon. He calls it “paying your sleep debt.”

We already knew that eating and exercise were critical in determining our weight and overall health. What we are only just beginning to realize is that sleep is the third leg of that stool, and if you’re not getting enough, you could be undermining all your kale munching and Stairmaster sweating. So put it up high on your list of New Year’s resolutions. It will be one you might actually keep: prioritize sleep.

Hints for better sleep

* Sleep in complete darkness, without phones, tablets, e-readers, laptopts, TV, LED clocks, night lights or other electronic devices. Doing otherwise keeps the brain alert, turns off melatonin production, and skews your body clock for daytime. And while TVs contribute to the problem, small electronics held close to the face make it much worse.

* If you’re traveling or can’t eliminate all the light in a room, wear a sleep mask.

* Go to bed when you feel tired. Don’t push trhough to that second wind. If you’re staying up past 10:30 p.m., you’re likely to get another burst of cortisol, which interferes with sound sleep and increases fat storage. With things like Facebook and your favorite live-streamed TV series, it’s easy to get caught up. This stuff is addictive to the brain. It lights up all the compulsions. You have to override that in order to say, no, I’m tired.

* Keep the temperature in your room no higher than 68 degrees. We sleep best when our core body temperature is cooler. People who sleep soundly tend to have lower core body temperatures at night, while people who sleep worse have higher core temperatures. Encourage lower body temperature by keeping your room cool.

* Everybody loves their caffeine, but if you’re having sleep problems, limit yourself to one cup of coffee in the morning (make it good!), then switch to green tea, which has one-third the caffeine, and don’t have any caffeine after lunch. Caffeine has a half life of eight to twelve hours in the body, so a cup in the afternoon will still be in your system when you’re going to bed.

* Meditate before bed. People are scared of meditation; they think you need a whole hour. Three minutes of meditation, even one minute of deep slow breathing, resets the whole nervous system. Often, when we get in bed, we hear the chatter in our mind. If we can instead listen to the silence around us, it helps the nervous system settle down.

* Take a detox bath before bed. Put a quart of Epsom salts, a small package of baking soda, and a little vinegar in the bath. It’s relaxing to the muscles, draws out impurities, and the hot water is soothing.

* If all else fails, supplements like GABA, Tryptophan and Phosphytidyl Serine can be used as a temporary crutch to get yourself back in sync.

- Courtesy of Fran Sussman

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