An urgent project, a blockage, an increase in sales during the peak season – and here you are again stocking up on coffee and cola to work at night. Familiar? And whether it’s a one-time necessity or an ongoing conscious choice, if you’re sacrificing sleep, you’ll be dealing with health consequences. What – we understand together with scientists in this material.
When and how much to sleep
The body of an adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep per day, and there is no difference what time to go to bed. Circadian rhythms are unique to everyone, so there is no universal daily routine that would suit everyone.
In addition, the amount of sleep needed varies with age and is highly dependent on health and lifestyle. To determine what time to go to bed is right for you, try going to bed earlier or later. Ideally, the mode that is comfortable for you should be observed not only on weekdays, but also on weekends: this will help you fall asleep easier and have a positive effect on overall well-being and productivity.
While sleep times can be shifted to suit personal preference, circadian rhythms are tightly coupled with day and night (more specifically, light and dark). Our body clock is influenced by many factors, including diet and exercise, but light and its absence are the strongest. That is why constant work at night can lead to shift work syndrome – a disorder of circadian rhythms. It develops when the biological clock conflicts with the daily routine and the body cannot adapt to the shifted sleep-wake cycle.
Is it bad to work at night?
There is a huge amount of research on the dangers of night work, and most of them concern the health of those who work the night shift. But even if you work at night at least three times a month, this can already be equated with a shift schedule.
Shift work syndrome can cause insomnia or, conversely, drowsiness during daytime work. In this state, a person usually loses up to four hours of sleep per day. Occasionally, you can adapt to night work, but for this you need to constantly work at night and sleep during the day. Over time, a sleep disorder can lead to complications, including:
- Mood problems – irritability, depression.
- Decrease in working capacity.
- Aggravation of existing health problems.
- Increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer in women.
- Decrease in testosterone levels in men.
Canadian scientists Philippe Boudreau, Guy Dumont, and Diane Boivin tracked sleep time, light levels, and melatonin production in a small group of police officers who worked the night shift for a week. Usually our body produces melatonin late in the evening, feeling tired and focusing on the surrounding darkness. If a person adapts to a change in the sleep-wake cycle, then the peak of melatonin production shifts depending on the mode. So, the police officers who managed to adapt to the unusual regime felt happier and more cheerful than the rest of the participants in the experiment. It is worth noting that only 40% of the study participants succeeded.
In another, larger study , conducted by researchers at Monash University in Australia and Harvard Medical School, more than 3,000 police officers from Canada and the United States participated. About 40% could not adapt – they were diagnosed with various sleep disorders.
What if I’m used to working at night and don’t complain?
Even if you feel good at first, the body will not be able to endure the constantly changing regime indefinitely. In addition, night work often provokes nutritional problems. At night, people are more likely to order prepared food rather than cook on their own. As a result, problems with excess weight and concomitant diagnoses may appear that worsen the quality of life.
Another study was conducted by Andrew Steptoe of University College London and sleep evangelist Sophie Bostock. The results showed that pilots felt happier on days when they didn’t work the morning or night shifts. It’s not uncommon to choose a day off rather than go to work, regardless of the start time of the shift. But researchers also found that if pilots worked the morning shift, when they woke up and then during the day, they had higher levels of the stress hormone – cortisol. And in the long run, high cortisol levels are directly linked to high blood pressure and an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Another study by a group of scientists from the BWH Clinic in Boston showed that over time, people who sleep less or sleep less at night, but more during the day, have carbohydrate metabolism disorders and metabolic changes. In the long term, these people have an increased risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The largest meta-analysis of studies on night work and vascular complications was published in 2012 by Amit Garg, Lars Laugsand and colleagues at the University of Western Ontario. Scientists have confirmed that people who work at night face an increased risk of developing heart attacks. And even if shift workers tried to control their lifestyle, the risk still increased.
All of these studies point to the fact that working at night – whether permanent or occasional – will have negative consequences for the body. And if night shifts aren’t going to be avoided, it’s wise to take every opportunity to eat right, exercise, and watch for early signs of the diseases and conditions described above.