Best Medications for Night Shift Workers: How to Stay Awake?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could work your night shifts without feeling sleepy plus have 100% focus, alertness, creativity, and clarity? There are actually some wonderful medications that can help you achieve this, and they’re readily accessible. Learn more about these meds and how you can use them to stay awake.

Best Medications for Night Shift Workers

Night shifts can be very challenging because staying awake all night goes against the internal biological clock that guides our sleep cycle. Whether you’re a night owl or an early riser, you’re likely to feel tired, sleepy, and less involved in activities you perform throughout the night. If you find yourself losing steam mid-way through nightshift, unable to focus on the tasks ahead, or stay awake, there are some drugs that may come in handy. In this guide, we’ll reveal the best medication for night shift workers and provide you with useful health tips on how to stay awake.

What Is Shift Work Disorder?

Shift work disorder is a condition that affects people who work odd hours such as overnight, rotating shifts, and early mornings – typically hours outside the traditional 9 am to 5 pm.

Generally, humans have an internal clock, or a circadian rhythm, that regulates the wake-sleep cycle based on natural light and darkness. During the day, light absorbed by the retinas in the eyes triggers the release of certain hormones in the brain like cortisol that energize the body and promote alertness and focus. As the sun begins to set and darkness creeps in, the absence of light causes the brain to release melatonin, another hormone that induces feelings of tiredness and sleepiness.

The condition, which is also known as shift work sleep disorder (SWSD), arises when an individual’s work schedule overlaps with their traditional sleeping time. Many people who suffer from it find it difficult to sleep when they attempt to or struggle to stay awake during the day [1][2].

Primary Symptoms of Shift Work Disorder

Researchers estimate that 5% to 10% of the nearly 6 million Americans who work at odd hours permanently or on a rotating shift basis have SWSD [3][4]. If you work night shifts regularly and are wondering if you have this disorder, the primary symptoms associated with it are as follows:

  • insomnia: Many people who have SWSD suffer from insomnia. They typically find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep long enough for their bodies to get enough rest. It is worth noting that this symptom may vary from one person to another based on the timing of their respective work shifts. For instance, while people who work evening shifts may find it difficult to stay asleep, those who work between 4 am and 7 am may find it difficult to fall asleep. On average, people with insomnia lose about 1 to 4 hours of sleep every night;
  • excessive sleepiness: Due to staying awake at odd hours and probably suffering from one form of insomnia or the other, SWSD patients often feel tired, drowsy, restless, unable to focus, and sleepy when attempting to do something productive. This impairment negatively impacts performance at work and may even pose safety risks, especially for those whose jobs involve operating machinery.

Other symptoms may include trouble with relationships, lack of energy, depression or moodiness, irregular breathing pattern, difficulty remembering, paying attention, or focusing on tasks [5].

Shift Work Disorder

SWSD symptoms are usually self-diagnosable. It is important for people suffering from it to seek medical attention, as they are more likely to have accidents both at work and while driving.

Non-Medical Treatments

Although SWSD is a chronic condition, its effects can be lessened by both medical and non-medical means. Here are some popular non-medical treatments that help relieve some of the sleep disorder symptoms.

Light Therapy

Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a technique used to treat SWSD, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and certain other conditions by exposure to daylight or an equivalent form of light. During light therapy sessions, people looking to be treated work or sit near a device known as a light therapy box. But how does this therapy treat SWSD? Here are the facts about it.

Recall that the wake-sleep cycle, energy levels, alertness, and mood are all linked to levels of certain hormones in the brain that respond to the influence of light and darkness on the internal clock. Just as normal daylight does, light signals from a lightbox trigger the release of key hormones like cortisol that boost energy levels, improve mood, and increase alertness and focus [6]. While light therapy works, it has to be used at the right time of the day, depending on your shift schedule, to produce the desired effects.

For example, undergoing light therapy a few hours prior to the start of your work shift and being exposed to dim light at the end of it could help regularize your sleep pattern. Your doctor will help you determine if phototherapy is a good option for you, as well as the appropriate timing and amount of light to receive. However, you’ll need to provide the doctor with detailed information about your work schedule and present sleeping patterns.

Besides light therapy boxes, there are also portable phototherapy glasses that equally help lessen SWSD symptoms. These devices are available in brick-and-mortar stores and online.


Remember the hormones that influence mood, alertness, and the wake-sleep cycle we discussed earlier? Melatonin is one of them. The body produces a large amount of it around bedtime in healthy individuals who work normal hours, giving rise to tiredness and a feeling of sleepiness. Melatonin production generally responds to light and darkness, kicking in in the evenings as daylight fades out, maintaining high levels throughout the night, and diminishing around daybreak [7].


In people who work late night or early morning shifts, exposure to bright light often tricks the brain into thinking that it’s still daytime, thus suppressing normal melatonin production. This could also affect their regular melatonin profile such that the body produces the hormone at the wrong time. Such misalignment of the melatonin profile and a break in the normal flow of the circadian rhythm contribute to the decreased focus during a night shift and loss of much-needed sleep during the day.

In certain cases, melatonin supplements may help to reschedule circadian rhythms when timed correctly and help an SWSD patient go to bed and wake up at different times of the day. The supplements are available as over-the-counter meds that aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning that they can be purchased with ease. However, it is advisable to consult a doctor to help you determine if this form of treatment is the best option for your condition.


Caffeine is a strong natural nootropic known for boosting alertness and improving productivity during work shifts. Little wonder that about 63 percent of employees in the U.S. have a workplace coffee area [8].

A single cup of coffee (which contains 100–200 mg of caffeine) has been found to improve focus and alertness in most individuals who use it just before pulling an all-nighter. The effects of caffeine typically set in within 15–45 minutes of intake and stay active in the body for about 3–5 hours. Consequently, grabbing a cup of coffee might help you perform optimally during your work shift [9]. However, caffeine isn’t always regarded as a great option because of the sudden energy crash, extreme fatigue, and jitters that follow as its effects wear off.

If you plan on using coffee, do well to take it around the beginning half of your work shift. This way, you wouldn’t need to take so much of it, and its effects would have worn off before your sleeping time.

Safe Medications for Shift Work Sleep Disorder

If you’ve tried improving your SWSD through the non-medical treatments, plus working on your sleep hygiene and practicing relaxation without any improvements, then it might be time to try out medications. However, when it comes to using sleeping pills or cognitive enhancers, it is important to strictly adhere to your doctor’s instructions. Taking drugs incorrectly might make them ineffective, increase the risk of side effects, or even worsen your symptoms.

Modafinil and armodafinil are two effective medications that have, over the years, proven to be well-tolerated and safe for treating shift work sleep disorder. They both have a low potential for abuse and dependence [10].

Modafinil (Provigil)

Modafinil is a stimulant, but one with a difference. Unlike caffeine that causes jitters and amphetamines that are habit-forming, it has limited side effects and can be started and stopped without causing any withdrawal symptoms. In fact, researchers from Harvard and Oxford regard medicine as “the world’s first safe smart drug.”


Commonly sold under the brand name Provigil, modafinil helps people who feel sleepy while on the job stay awake, alert, and focused. It works by increasing the quantity of dopamine, serotonin, and other chemical neurotransmitters in the brain that influence the sleep-wake cycle, mood, and cognitive function.

Armodafinil (Nuvigil)

Armodafinil is yet another safe and effective stimulant used to treat excessive daytime sleepiness caused by SWSD and other sleep disorders. It is a longer-lasting version (contains only the (R)-(−)-enantiomer) of racemic modafinil. Consequently, it has a longer half-life and is about 1.33 times stronger than modafinil [11]. This means that a smaller dose of it packs a punch similar to what a higher dose of modafinil does.

More strength at a lower dose translates into even better tolerability. Thus, individuals who experience slight discomfort with modafinil may find armodafinil very safe and effective.

Note that there are other remedies for SWSD that may be both safe and effective. However, we’ve listed the two most popular medications used by night shift workers, students, and professionals from all walks of life looking to promote wakefulness, enhance their cognitive abilities, and ultimately improve productivity. You can talk to a doctor to help you explore other options.

The Verdict: Stay Alert at Work Night Shift

While it may not be possible to alter your work hours, behavioral changes might help you stay alert and productive while working and get quality sleep at bedtime.

Safe stimulants like modafinil and armodafinil are also a great alternative for a quick fix. They help people with an odd sleep schedule stay alert at work night shift and even boost their productivity. However, it is worth noting that their popularity makes them a big target for counterfeit med manufacturers. Consequently, it becomes necessary to go through trusted vendors when sourcing them to avoid getting counterfeits. and are tested and trusted vendors. The huge number of verified positive reviews on reliable platforms like Trustpilot and Yotpo speaks volumes of their reputability. There are several other e-pharmacies out there you can trust for high-quality pills and excellent customer service; just be sure to patronize only on a credible recommendation.

Note that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for sleep disorders. The best vitamins, supplements, diet plan, or technique for one individual might not favor the next. If your work schedule is affecting your sleep and overall health, you can start by improving your sleep hygiene. If this doesn’t work out for you, you may then try out the non-medical treatments before going for meds, unless you’re looking for a quick fix. But in all things, consult your healthcare provider before receiving any treatment.


  1. Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD): Symptoms & Treatment. Retrieved: January 28, 2021.
  2. Shift Work Disorder: Overview and Complications. Written by Danielle Pacheco. Medically reviewed by Dr. Anis Rehman. Retrieved: January 28, 2021.
  3. Shift Work Sleep Disorder: Burden of Illness and Approaches to Management. By Jonathan R. L. Schwartz and Thomas Roth. Retrieved: January 28, 2021.
  4. Shift Work Sleep Disorder. Retrieved: February 5, 2021.
  5. Shift Work Sleep Disorder: Treatment, Diagnosis, Disability. By Ana Gotter. Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH. Updated on November 12, 2019.
  6. Light Therapy. Retrieved: January 28, 2021.
  7. Melatonin | You and Your Hormones. Retrieved: January 28, 2021.
  8. Share of Employees with a Coffee Area at Work in the United States in 2020. Published by Jan Conway. Retrieved: January 28, 2021.
  9. Can You Flush Out Caffeine? Tips and More. Written by Katey Davidson, MScFN, RD. Medically reviewed by Miho Hatanaka, RDN, L.D. Retrieved: January 28, 2021.
  10. Practical Use and Risk of Modafinil, a Novel Waking Drug. By Dongsoo Kim. Retrieved: January 28, 2021.
  11. Armodafinil Versus Modafinil in Patients of Excessive Sleepiness Associated with Shift Work Sleep Disorder: A Randomized Double-Blind Multicentric Clinical Trial. By D. V. Tembe, A. Dhavale, et al. Retrieved: January 28, 2021.

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