According to a new study working nights can be hazardous to our health.
Scientists from the Surrey Research Centre at Surrey University found that shift work or even jet lag, can play havoc with genes which control the body’s daily functions after only three days – and the health dangers are thought to include an increased risk of breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart attacks.
Whether you’re a nurse, a police officer, cabin crew, lorry driver or a factory worker it’s hard balancing your sleep patterns when you work shifts. Even if you want to sleep in the day, it’s not always that easy and trust me, I live with a shift worker so I know the effect it has!
While you want to sleep, the rest of the world is awake – people are in and out of their homes and cars, postie knocks on your door, lawn mowers going in summer, dust bin workers emptying bins at midday, the phone rings. The list is endless.
Working the ‘graveyard shift’ forces the body to operate counter to its circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells us when we should be sleeping and when we should wake. Few people adapt easily or completely to such schedules which is why it’s important to learn how to make your schedule work for you.
Here’s our top tips for shift workers:
- You can help keep your biological clock tuned in to your sleep with anchor sleep. Aim to have at least four hours sleep at the same time every night/morning (e.g. 3-7am). This seems to help keep your sleep clock regular.
- Use the weekend or days off to get in some extra “recovery” sleep.
- Make sure the sleeping environment is as conducive to rest as possible. A comfortable bed in a dark, well-ventilated room, is essential. And when we say dark, we mean dark – invest in some black out curtains. If you work shift, you really need to re-set that biological clock. Also, aim to cut out as much extraneous noise if possible: install double glazing; use ear plugs.
- Avoid stimulants (eg caffeine), large meals or vigorous exercise for at least 3-4 hours before going to bed. Also, avoid over- the counter sleeping aids which may make you over sleepy when you need to be alert (driving home, for example)
- If you have trouble getting to sleep, lavender, passion flower, hops, orange blossom, Scot’s pine, camomile and peppermint all claim to promote sleep. And milky night time drinks really do help bring on the Zzzs.
- The Romans thought that lettuce was good for sleep, but the crème-de-la-crème “sleep sandwich” has to be a banana, marmite and lettuce butty: the banana and marmite contain natural substances that help induce sleep.
- If you’re an owl, you usually go to bed late and get up late, so shift work will be less of a problem than it is for larks, who prefer to get up early and go to bed early. Bright light in the evening (you can get light bulbs with a much higher lux value than ordinary, domestic bulbs) and avoiding the dawn light by wearing sunglasses can help.
- Maximum sleepiness occurs when your biological clock temperature is at its lowest – usually around 4am. Your personal level of alertness is controlled by your biological clock and by how much sleep you have had. Remember sleeplessness leads to poor concentration, thinking, memory, increased irritability and hostility. Alcohol magnifies these effects.
- If you’re a shift worker, do you have any top tips you’d like to share?