Modern society comes with a heavy workload, and because of this, a huge number of people work irregular schedules, including multiple shifts, long shifts or night shifts.
According to specialists, there is a link between shift work and long shifts and numerous health problems.
Effects of working night shifts
These include an increased risk of metabolic problems, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, obesity and even certain types of cancer. For example, a study by researchers in the United States concluded that working night shifts can increase the risk of breast cancer by 3.3% every 5 years.
Working night shifts can also interfere with the body’s ability to repair DNA damage in normal cellular processes. Suppression of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating the body’s internal clock, may play a role in this.
People have to work at night for many reasons, and finding ways to cope with the associated stress is necessary and can make the difference between a healthy life and one prone to many health risks. The following article presents some important tips that can help people cope more easily with night shifts.
Managing sleep patterns
Some people can work at night without problems, while others experience sleep deprivation and fatigue. Difficulties working through the night are normal, and this is because people are made to sleep at night. Specifically, the human body is controlled by an internal clock (circadian rhythm) that is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus. This complex structure generates circadian rhythms, which regulate behavioural and physiological processes in the body, including alertness, sleep, temperature control and hormone production.
Circadian rhythms run in 24-hour cycles and are significantly influenced by the cycles of natural light and dark. Many bodily processes that are active during the day slow down during the night to prepare the body for sleep. At night, the body’s internal clock releases a sleep hormone called melatonin from the pineal gland (epiphysis). This will have the effect of reducing the body’s alertness and increasing the desire to sleep. Night shifts cause the body to fight against its natural rhythms, trying to be alert when it is scheduled to sleep. Similarly, when a person returns home after a night shift, the internal body clock and exposure to natural daylight during the day will cause the body to tend to be alert and active.
Adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep to perform at their best. If people sleep less than 7-9 hours, the body will need to make up for lost sleep as soon as possible. Working night shifts involves successfully managing sleep during the day, i.e. keeping sleep ‘debt’ to a minimum, but also combating fatigue at night. Daytime sleep will be shallower, shorter and of poorer quality than nighttime sleep, for a variety of reasons, including light intensity, noise level and temperature.
To keep sleep under control and make the environment more conducive to sleep, some tips are recommended. After a night shift, it is recommended to catch up on sleep as quickly as possible. People should not delay going to bed, as the subsequent need for sleep will be even greater. You should also give your body enough hours of sleep after a night shift. Thus, it is recommended to devote at least 7 hours of sleep after a night shift. A snack should be taken before bedtime, as hunger can cause sleep disturbances. However, alcohol and nicotine consumption should be avoided. Alcohol can help induce sleep but will make it poor quality and disturbed. Nicotine is a stimulant and can cause difficulty falling asleep. The bedroom should be quiet, dark and at a comfortable temperature. Earplugs and opaque curtains can help in cases where there is noise and too much light.
Controlling light exposure
Exposure to light triggers chemical events in the body’s internal clock that manages sleep and wake cycles. For example, the body releases melatonin as it gets darker to cause drowsiness. In the morning light, the body suppresses melatonin and increases cortisol levels to induce wakefulness and alertness.
Artificial light can affect the circadian rhythm in the same way as sunlight, and timed exposure to bright light can lead to changes in the body’s sleep cycle. Thus, during night shifts, people may try to trick their bodies by exposing themselves to bright light during work and suppressing this exposure after work. In addition, specialists say people should avoid blue light from digital devices such as smartphones, tablets and TVs before bedtime. Research suggests that blue light deactivates the circadian rhythm, which signals to the body that it is still daytime, but also comes with poorer sleep quality.
When your typical daily rhythm is out of balance, so is your metabolism. Night shift workers are thought to be more likely to experience metabolic syndrome and become overweight or obese. Disruption of the body’s biological clock is a primary reason, but a poor diet is also a factor. Meal planning can help people stay alert during working hours and be more relaxed for sleep. It is recommended to eat frequent but small meals with quality and easily digestible food. Fried, spicy and highly processed foods should be avoided. Sweets should also be avoided, but fruit and vegetables can be chosen. Proper hydration is necessary, but with the caveat that the bladder should not be overloaded with fluids before bedtime.
Include sleep during the day
Daytime sleep can be an essential element in working safely through the night. A short episode of sleep before going on the night shift can help combat fatigue and help maintain alertness. A mid-day nap has been shown to stimulate and restore brain power. Even a 20-45 minute nap is beneficial for those who work night shifts. To return to alertness quickly, it is recommended that sleep taken before the night shift does not exceed 45 minutes.
Manage your use of caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant; using it carefully can help a person stay alert during a night shift. However, improper use can cause gastrointestinal distress and various other negative effects. Most people drink large doses of coffee at the start of their shift to get it off to a good start. However, researchers recommend a different approach, namely drinking coffee in smaller but more frequent quantities. Dividing the caffeine dose in this way helps to increase wakefulness and achieve better results during night shifts. However, it is recommended that caffeine intake be stopped about 6 hours before bedtime so that sleep is not impaired.
Finally, it should be known that every person is different, so finding the right combination of techniques can take a long time. Applying some of the strategies recommended above can help people cope better with working night shifts and ensure that they get the right amount of sleep to be able to function properly the rest of the time.