Doctors, nurses, firefighters and other shift workers know all about the effects of wonky sleep.
Besides frequently feeling groggy and having to catch up on shut-eye during the day, those who punch in for graveyard or rotating shifts are more prone to a range of health problems, from heart attacks to obesity.
And now, new research shows that shift work may also have serious negative effects on the brain.
Using animal models, scientists at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine found that that subjects on shift work schedules had more severe stroke outcomes in terms of brain damage and loss of sensation and limb movement than controls on regular sleep-wake cycles. Strokes happen when blood flow is cut off to part of the brain.
“The body is synchronized to night and day by circadian rhythms—24-hour cycles controlled by internal biological clocks that tell our bodies when to sleep, when to eat and when to perform numerous physiological processes,” says David Earnest, professor of neuroscience and experimental therapeutics and lead author of the study, published in Endocrinology. “A person on a shift work schedule, especially on rotating shifts, challenges, or confuses, their internal body clocks by having irregular sleep-wake patterns or meal times.”
The study also found that the gravity of stroke outcomes due to shift work was far more in men than women.
And it may not just be shift workers who need to worry about how irregular sleep patterns affect their health.
“This research has clear implications for shift workers with odd schedules, but probably extends to many of us who keep schedules that differ greatly from day-to-day, especially from weekdays to weekends,” Earnest says. “These irregular schedules can produce what is known as “social jet lag,” which similarly unwinds our body clocks so they no longer keep accurate time, and thus can lead to the same effects on human health as shift work.”
Lack of sleep affects people in other ways too. A 2010 study published in Progress in Brain Research found that people have less capacity to learn, remember, or be creative when they’re fatigued.
“I frequently see people whose lack of sleep is causing health issues and vice versa,” says Toronto naturopathic doctor Chris Habib. “Sleep is such an important component of mental health. A lot of people who have insomnia end up suffering from depression or anxiety as a result…. And a lot of people with anxiety will wake up in the middle of the night and all they can think of is work.”
So what can shift workers to be as well-rested as possible?
Start with basic sleep hygiene
This involves avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol; ensuring that your bed is only used for sleeping or sex; getting regular physical activity; and not doing anything stressful in the bedroom like work, says Habib.
“Identify any obstacles to good sleep,” he says. “Ensure that the room is quiet and dark. You can try wearing a face mask or using ear plugs. It’ good to have a nighttime routine; make sure you wind down.”
Nap – but only briefly
“Those who nap have been shown to be more productive, alert, and less stressed than those who don’t,” says Amy M. Bender, sleep and athletic performance researcher at Calgary’s Centre for Sleep and Human Performance. “The optimal nap is 20 minutes. This is short enough to boost alertness but not long enough that the person goes into slow-wave sleep—the deepest stage–where they wake up feeling groggy and not-awake.”
Many shift workers have no choice but to eat at odd hours. Regular meal times are still important, though. And people should avoid eating a large meal within three hours of bedtime.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that helps control people’s sleep and wake cycles. Normally, melatonin levels go up in the evening and remain high for most of the night, then drop in the early morning. Supplements are commonly used to treat insomnia, as natural melatonin levels decrease gradually with age. While its use appears to be safe in healthy adults, long-term studies don’t exist.
Keep worries at bay
If anxiety is preventing you from falling asleep or is keeping you awake when you wake up prematurely, Habib says approaches like meditation, deep breathing and mindfulness can help.
Does your job require shift work? How do you cope with late nights or changing schedules? Let us know your tips by tweeting @YahooStyleCA.