Night Shift Health Effects

Nobody wants to work the night shift, but the unfortunate news is that if you’re in that line of work then someone will need to and sometimes that someone is going to be you. While on the one hand it might seem quite romantic almost to be working in the dark when no one else is around and to be privy to the hours that other people rarely get to see. However there is also always the concern that it might not be that good for us and that it might be damaging our health to be forcing our body clock against its natural cycles.

How Your Body Clock Works

So is this the case? Well in order to understand the answer it’s important to understand how the body’s natural ‘body clock’ works. Essentially this is an in-built timer that tells our body what time of day it is and how long we’ve been awake for, and this information is then used to dictate whether our body produces certain hormones and when which make us feel the need for more sleep or not.

The body achieves this clock via two different methods – the ‘internal pacemakers’ which are the internal aspects based on how long we’ve been awake for etc, and the ‘external zeitgebers’ which translates as ‘outside time givers’. In other words we don’t just have a pre-programmed certain amount of hours we expect to be awake – our body also takes cues from external stimuli such as the light and other features and this tells our body roughly what time it is.

In other words, in the morning, light makes its way to our brain through a thin part of our skull (and oddly enough also through the backs of our knees) and this then tells us that it’s morning and results in our brain producing the hormones we need to wake us up. This means that when we wake up in the morning we will find ourselves waking up into light and signing birds and feeling ready to awaken. Likewise in the evening the lack of light, the quiet, and the social cues, will work on top of our natural circadian rhythms to produce the melatonin that makes us drowsy and ready for bed. Cave studies have shown that strange things can happen when we take away our external cues.

Night Shifts

Of course unfortunately when we work night shifts none of this will work quite like that. Now, instead of waking up to sunlight and singing birds, or dozing off in the dark and the quiet, we will be trying to force our bodies to ignore the external cues and sleep regardless. We will be trying to alter our ‘internal pacemakers’ by sleeping during the day, but all the time cues such as the light and the noise – as well as years of having an opposite body clock – are going to be fighting to get us ‘back on track’.

What this will mean is that we don’t sleep as well, plain and simple. When we go to sleep it will still be slightly light and we’ll hear the hustle and bustle of people around during the day going about their business and our brain will be telling us to wake up. Then when we wake up into the night it will be much colder, much darker and our brain will be hard wired to continue producing melatonin. This will result in damaged sleep and more tiredness during the day which is a powerful combination to leave you drowsy and not as mentally alert as you should be.

Other Factors

That would be bad enough, but actually the negative impacts go further than this. For instance while we could probably exist (feeling a little worse for wears) by sticking to a night shift and keeping our body clock roughly the same but 12 hours behind, we will in fact generally not work whole weeks and will be more likely to make a deal to do one or two nights of the week. This then means that we end up having to adjust to a night-time body clock – but then having to adjust back again. Somewhere this will mean having to stay up later and go nearly a day without sleep to get back on track. Even for those who do work 9-5 work shifts, they will still likely want to stay up later (earlier?) to socialise with their family and friends and not have a life that revolves entirely around their work, and they will still likely want to ‘switch back’ again at the weekends. It’s that or completely miss out on socialising with anyone other than your colleagues.

The Importance of Sleep

This then of course means that you are getting a lot less sleep every week, and it means that you are getting a lot less time to relax as well. Immediately then you are getting sleep deprivation to an extent and that’s on top of the fact that you won’t be able to sleep as well once you do try and get your sleep.

This then means that other than the social effects of not getting any sleep you will be dealing with the effects of having far less sleep and these are many. Below are just a selection of those side effects:

• Lack of concentration

• Confusion

• Low mood

• Short temper

• Headaches

• Low immune system (more common illness)

• Memory loss

• Hallucinations (in extreme circumstances)

• Slow healing of wounds

• Stunted growth (in the young)

• Low sex drive

• Diminished appetite

• Bad skin/hair/nails

• Slow reactions

• Muscle/weight loss

Further to these there are also many of symptoms and conditions of sleep deprivation. Most of these come from the fact that sleep is an anabolic phase whereby our body is strengthening and rebuilding tissue – cementing connections between neurons, healing wounds, growing and replacing cells in the skin and hair, building muscle, fighting illness and more. Without this phase to the necessary degree our body simply gets subjected to exertion and damage for hours only to not get the time it needs to heal and repair itself afterwards.

What You Can Do

Many of these problems are unfortunately unavoidable, but there are some ways you can minimise the negative impacts. Here we will have a slight look at some tips you can use to avoid the downsides of sleep deprivation.

Use a Daylight Lamp: Daylight lamps are lights that create a much more powerful and natural looking light that has many of the same benefits as real sunlight. Thus when you are woken in the morning by a daylight lamp, this can give you the same kind of energy as real sunlight.

Seal Out Light and Noise: As mentioned, part of the problem with night shifts is that you are sleeping through noise and light – the external ‘zeitgebers’ that tell your body it’s day time. Thus to sleep properly you will need to be able to seal out the light and the noise – invest in heavy curtains and blinds or shutters for your window if necessary, make sure other people in the house are respectful of your sleeping hours, and get yourself ear plugs.

Be Constant: The body and our internal body clock particularly enjoys routine and by going to sleep at the same time every day as much as possible then you should find that your body starts to settle down around the time you want to be sleeping.

2 comments

  1. Anonymous Reply
    December 13, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    Good info, curious the take on napping, doesn't our bodies have some natural napping cycle? Doesn't that involve being in the day? Been working third shift so long that daylight makes me sleepy in fact. Heard also in a mutated gene that shifts sleep to a semi nocturnal state.

  2. Cheryl Reply
    November 6, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    Very interesting article about working night. I'm wide awake until like 5/6am then sleep until 5pm get up and then it's like morning instead of night for me. I feel more alert at night… As apos to day shift where I literally felt dead on my feet with only like 2 hours sleep for a 12 hour shift. Now I get 11 hours sleep before a shift – perfect! It doesn't work for everyone but for me it does… Defiantly nocturnal… I wonder if this runs in the family as mum is awake until like 5am too… Maybe our sleeping habits are genetic rather than environmental? It's strange how some people are morning people and others are night time people.

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