From Overnights to Jet Lag – Reconsidering How We Sleep

My background is in journalism. And anyone who has worked in a TV newsroom will be familiar with the term “overnights.” It’s a right of passage that lies somewhere between the unpaid intern and the full-time staff member who has earned their way up to normal daytime hours.

News breaks around the clock and most TV stations run either a 24-hour channel or morning, noon, prime-time and evening shows. That means you can probably find a caffeine-fueled writer pecking away at a keyboard in the newsroom at just about any hour of the day.

Working for a morning news TV station has taught me how to manage an astonishing level of tiredness. I’ve learned some ways on how to handle being forced to stay awake and shift your sleep cycles. I hope this helps anyone suffering or preparing to suffer from jetlag.

My trick with jet leg (going west) has been to:

  • Take a night flight and sleep the night away
  • See as much sunlight as I can on the day I land
  • Try to get in some walking or light exercise on my first day of travel

That usually kills any jet lag I experience quite quickly. Strangely, I suffer worse jetlag going back home but that doesn’t matter as much.

Sometimes jet lag still creeps up though. It can bring on a few frustrating nights staring wide-awake at the ceiling and inappropriate “falling asleep” moments during the day.

But let me tell you, I’ve never felt more tired than working those overnight shifts. The show I work for runs for four hours, from 5 am to 9 am. That means my shift goes from 1 am to 8:30 am. Remember when you were in university, and you had to not only pull five all-nighters in a row, but you had to write your best work at your top speed with your professor sitting beside you, critiquing your work? Yeah, that’s what it feels like to work as a writer on a morning news show. Nurses and graveyard shift security guards, I have a new level of sympathy…

What I started to do was put into practice a theory I’d recently read about. A few months ago I came across this article from the New York Times about re-thinking the way we sleep. Apparently the idea of a solid 8-hours of straight sleep is a concept made up after the start of the Industrial Revolution. During that time, the work day hours became standardized and in order to keep production levels up to their peak, sleep hours did too. But actually, all throughout history people without alarm clocks have slept in two cycles throughout the night. It make sense right? Sometimes you fall asleep and then wake up in the middle of the night and there is absolutely nothing that you can do to fall asleep again. It can be a really fretful couple of hours for those staring at their bedroom ceilings because they know they have to be up for work in a few hours and will get less than the recommended eight hours.

But actually – what if this wake up period was seen as a good thing? It’s been documented throughout history that people had a first sleep, a period of being awake, and then a second sleep. And the waking hours were something that many people actually looked foward to. It was a great time to catch up on your prayers or study. Doctors even recommended the time between the first and second sleep as the optimal time to try to conceive.

So during days-on-end of overnight shifts, I put this theory into practice. The schedule I followed was:

  • Go to sleep by 8 pm – wake up at midnight. 
  • Work from 1-8:30 am. Return home by 9:14 am
  • Sleep from 10 am-3 pm (give or take a few hours)

Simply put, I managed not to die from my overnight shifts with this schedule. Every time a new cycle of oversights start, my body gets to the verge of becoming sick but it never gets there if I manage to sleep and eat well.

Other things I do to manage the crazy sleep cycle:

  • Sleep with an eye mask during my first sleep, in the morning. I don’t have dark curtains in my room so even though I sleep, I find it helps trick my body a bit better into thinking it’s night time. 
  • Pop vitamin-rich fruits (blueberries and blackberries) like they are candy. 
  • Try to go on at least a 1/2 hour walk during the middle of the day, between the first and second sleep.
  • Get in as many hours of ‘digital detox’ as I can. That means no computers, TV, radio or iPod. Admittedly I don’t get as many hours as I like, but I keep trying.

So far, this first and second sleep cycle strategy has worked for me and I think taking in small amounts of sleep could help combat my future jet lag as well. Like anything, it’s best to take things in verses rather than chapters. Actually listening to what your body needs (instead of what feels normal) will do wonders. Let me know if this does anything for you.

Lovely place for a nap in Vienna

Lovely place for a nap in Vienna