It is often a concern, working nights and wondering what the effects on our bodies will be. From police officers, to nurses and aged care workers, many professions demand that personnel be alert, attentive and doing their jobs well during the night time shift. Many of us have asked ourselves, will working through the night and sleeping during the day have a lasting impact on my body and health? What are the effects of working the night shift? Should we be asking for longer periods of working night shifts to ‘get into the groove’ or should we chop and change? We looked to the professionals for answers and ways to approach working the nights, and our health, well.
What The Research Tells Us
Doctors and research papers have been coming to the same conclusions. There are concerns surrounding working the night shift and the effects on the body. Dr James Hamblin writes that “Newly discovered health risks of working night shifts keep coming out: higher risks of coronary artery disease, diabetes, weight gain, and some cancers.” Additionally the International Agency for Research on Cancer speaks of night shifts being “probably carcinogenic”. He explains that studies have shown that personnel who had worked a decade of shift work displayed cognitive decline years ahead of their peers that had not worked shift work. However, Dr Hamblin reminds us that these findings are from people who were doing shift work, i.e, bouncing back and forth between working nights and days. These findings open an approach to night shift work that may limit the negative effects being found. The key may be in consistency. Studies have shown that it the bouncing back and forth that may hold the key to effects on health.
Dr Hamblin explains that the more that we learn about sleep, the more important consistency becomes. Countless studies have found that six to eight hours of sleep is optimal for an adult yet as Hamblin argues, so now is when you get that sleep. He explains that even if you must work night shifts, consistency can and should still apply. He encourages that night workers attempt to get their body into a 24- hour consistent cycle, even one that doesn’t link to the sun.
The science behind the benefits of a consistent sleeping routine are complicated but linked to chronobiology and circadian-phase shifts. Essentially, consistent sleep leads to the body releasing what is called melatonin which helps with sleep. Importantly, the International Agency for Research on Cancer stated that shift workers having a higher risk of cancer “may be explained by the disruption of the circadian system that is caused by exposure to light at night. This can alter sleep-activity patterns, suppress melatonin production, and disregulate genes involved in tumor development.”
Night Shifts Over A Longer Period Of Time
Consistency Of Sleeping Pattern During The Day
Dr Hamblin believes that if you are able to get into a consistent prolonged schedule of nights shifts, you will be able to create consistency in sleep through blocking out light with blackout curtains and filling your home with lots of light with lamps.
While the science isn’t finalised on this point, Dr Hamblin argues that it would be best to be on night shifts for a prolonged period of time, to stay consistency on night shifts for a chunk of time. This allows for the opportunity to get into a groove of consistency, sleeping deeply and routinely during the day with the help of blackout curtains and bright lamps to simulate following the sun’s cycle. Additionally, night shift workers are advised to eat at the beginning and end of their shifts, limiting energy intake between midnight and 6am. This would allow your circadian rhythms to reset and your body to release the right amount of melatonin at the right time for good and rejuvenating sleep.
Of course it must be said that night shifts are not ideal many of us. Night shifts can mean missing out on social gathering and leading a distant schedule to loved ones. Gratitude for night shift workers is most definitely an area that society in general needs to and should speak and act on.
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