What’s common between Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Marissa Mayer? All these famous personalities have been known to be night owls. But before you start emulating your idol and drink too much coffee to stay awake, think about the health risks you might be exposing your body to. A recent study by researchers from the University of Surrey, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that working nights can increase your chances of heart disease, obesity and type-2 diabetes.
Not a dream
“Your body needs to rest for 7-8 hours every night. Only during sleep can it replenish itself and even give a break to the constantly working brain,” says Dr Ameya Chaudhari, a second-year student of DM Cardiology. “The ideal scenario would be if you slept for the same time period every night. But most of us end up stretching our days well into our nights.” This upside-down sleep cycle is even more prominent in those working shift jobs, where employees work days and nights during alternate periods.
“The most common prescription I write out is for sleep medicines,” says psychiatrist Dr Priyanka Sharma. Since she practises in Bengaluru, which a hub for tech companies and start-ups, she sees many shift workers on a daily basis. “Most complain of not spending enough time with their friends and families, which leads to depression and mental stress. Others who alternate between day and night work hours are not able to adjust to any one time slot and their bodies end up in a sort of limbo state,” she says.
Call centre employee Arthur Martin cannot agree more with Dr Sharma. “Since I work for a US-based firm, my days and nights are reversed. So, I miss out on all social obligations. Even though I get the weekend off, I am so zombied by Saturday morning that I just end up sleeping through it,” he says. Martin’s work timings have also led him to adopt an unhealthy lifestyle just to stay up all night. “I practically guzzle coffee and smoke two packs of cigarettes daily. I also end up snacking a lot and the results can be seen in my health,” he says.
Chaudhari also lists gastro-intestinal problems, ulcers, insomnia, and a general feeling of uneasiness as the adverse side-effects of working odd hours. “GI issues like diarrhoea, nausea, peptic ulcers, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome are common effects when your sleep cycle is disrupted. You may also experience mental health problems such as decreased attention span, loss of memory and inability to concentrate if you sleep odd hours,” he says.
Dhruvil P, an aeronautical engineer who works with a leading airline, has to work gruelling hours in alternating month-long day and evening shifts. His high-pressure job involves checking the mechanical safety of aircrafts before they take-off. “In my line of work, there is no room for error,” he says. “I have to be alert at all times, but when I go from one shift to the other, my body and brain don’t switch as quickly. When I feel I just can’t focus on work, I simply down a couple of cans of energy drinks or, in the worst case, excuse myself and take a short nap,” he says.
Nap it out
Napping is encouraged by Dr Chaudhari as well. “Resting for short periods will help you get back some energy. Try doing easy exercises, eating healthy snacks (nuts, veggies and fruits), and drinking lots of water. Try to work longer periods of night shifts — working two nights a week is much unhealthier than working alternating 15-day shifts,” he says. Dr Sharma advises playing some light music and sleeping in a dark room during the day to get the required rest.
“Try natural relaxation aids — essential oils, classical music, eye masks and dark blinds — to simulate a night-like atmosphere when you sleep during the day,” she says.
Take back the night
If you end up working odd hours, here’s what you can do to cope better:
* Try and make your bedroom sound- and light-proof to get an undisturbed daytime snooze.
* Quit smoking — nicotine will keep you from falling asleep disrupting your cycle even further.
* Eat light meals at the office.
* Take short naps (not more than 60 minutes) at your desk or in the designated rest area.
* Make sure your sleeping area is not too warm. Cooler temperatures lead to more restful sleep.
* For those who work constant night shifts, try to avoid direct sunlight by wearing sunglasses during the day. Exposure to bright light will awaken you for longer periods.