For millenniums, the sun was the only source of light and human behaviour followed a natural day-night cycle. Certain occupations, however, meant shift work even in ancient times — think soldiers, priests, bakers, etc. Since very few people were involved in work which interrupted the natural rhythm of the body, there was not too much research on how the body reacts to staying awake through the night.

Today, however, night shift work is common in many flourishing industries. Also, many of us inevitably stay awake at night to do work or make extra time in the day. Staying ahead of the professional game has become synonymous with sacrificing one’s personal well-being, so much so that we often forget that our health is our only real wealth.

While it might not be possible to completely do away with night shifts in our globalized world, we can understand how altering the body’s circadian rhythm affects us and what we can do to offset the damage.

A disastrous domino effect
Since the human body produces hormones at specific times of the day to provide energy for various activities, disrupting the sleep-wake cycle can lead to various physical and emotional ailments due to sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation may cause a state similar to chronic jetlag, featuring fatigue, irritability and insomnia. During night shifts, it is also common for people to pick up habits like caffeine and tobacco abuse, and consumption of sugary snacks and alcohol, compounding the problem with unhealthy lifestyle choices. Such issues are usually seen as everyday minor irritations which are often ignored till it adds up to cause a major issue in the long run.

One major concern for shift workers is of course heart disease — this primarily occurs due to dysfunction of the innermost lining of blood vessels, putting one at further risk of coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular disease, erectile dysfunction, etc. Altering the body’s natural sleep cycle causes a domino effect of sorts, as one issue affects another, throwing our system
out of gear.

Women are more susceptible to diseases associated with sleep deprivation, so much so that they are restricted from shift work to a large extent in places across Europe. It causes hormonal disturbances due to abnormal cortisol levels, unhealthy weight gain and increased risk of infertility due to polycystic ovarian syndrome. But with women’s increased participation in the workforce, it becomes inevitable that they would have to put themselves at risk in the current professional playing field by participating
in shift work.

What can be done?
For all the effort we put into our professional endeavours, which affects our well-being, we can adopt some positive personal practices to offset the damage we do to ourselves.

Good habits are good, irrespective of the time of day. But adopting these habits become ever more pertinent when your body is already going against its natural order. Here are some simple strategies to help navigate night shift work:

Sleep late and wake late. Prior to starting a period of night shift work, you can condition yourself by voluntarily staying awake till the early hours of the morning and waking in the afternoon. The key is to try and complete shift work at one shot in the most natural way possible.

Exercise. To reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, incorporating mild to moderate cardiovascular exercise into your everyday routine will be greatly beneficial.

Use sunglasses on the way home after a night shift and use dark curtains and eye mask while sleeping.

Avoid stimulants such as coffee and tobacco to stay awake, and depressants such as alcohol or benzodiazepines to help fall asleep during the day.

During the shift work it’s important to eat right. The trick is to eat small portions in many intervals through the shift.

Yoga and meditation helps mitigate the damage caused by sleep deprivation.

Doing away with the myths
There is a myth doing the rounds that one is either a lark or an owl. This is a fallacious classification of people as either morning persons or evening persons, with little scientific evidence to support the hypothesis. As mammals, all humans have an innate circadian rhythm according to the sunlight. One can easily get their body to adapt to this natural cycle by developing a healthy routine through good habits and exercise.

If you have decided that you no longer want to be a night shift worker and want to return to normalcy without medication, your best bet is a camping trip. A week long break in nature, away from all forms of artificial light, can reset your biological clock quicker than any medical therapy.

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