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For years, Robert Anderson worked the night shift in a Toronto area graphic arts company. He would clock in around midnight, work until dawn and go home to sleep. Or try to. Over time, he developed heart problems, weight issues and other health concerns. Trying to sleep when it’s noisy and light outside and be awake in the dark is challenging. Night workers like Anderson may have difficulty sleeping when they want to and be less than alert at work, which can increase their risk of accidents.

Trying to stay active in the dark and sleep in the day is like going against the natural biological current

“It’s an important public issue,” says Dr. Diane Boivin, Director, Centre for Study and Treatment of Circadian Rhythms, Douglas Institute, and Professor, Department of Medicine, McGill University, Montreal. Over time, says Dr. Boivin, night workers can become more prone to developing a variety of physical and mental health problems. Although it’s difficult to prove a cause-and-effect relationship – that working nights or shift work directly leads to adverse health outcomes – anecdotal and experimental evidence suggests that such work raises the risks for stress, fatigue, and other adverse health outcomes. Perhaps contributing to this increased risk is poor diet. It’s hard to find a healthy meal in a hospital in the middle of the night, notes Dr. Benjamin Rusak, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, whose research interests include behavioural aspects of circadian rhythms. Trying to stay active in the dark and sleep in the day is like going against the natural biological current, says Dr. Rachel Morehouse, Medical Director, Atlantic Sleep Centre, St. John Regional Hospital. “It’s no wonder that people get depressed; it’s no wonder that they get gastrointestinal problems; it’s no wonder they have cancer, and diabetes and more heart disease and hypertension and obesity. They’re swimming upstream against the current and we’re not meant to do that.” The impact on your body is worse if you work shifts, say three nights in a row followed by a day shift. “Shift work is jet lag multiplied 10-fold in terms of how bad it is,” says Rusak. “You don’t adapt physiologically because the cues around you aren’t shifting even though your work schedule is.” Even if you work the same night shift during the week and have the weekend off, you still get those jet lag symptoms of constant fatigue, says Morehouse. “You revert totally to sleeping at night and being active in the day, so even permanent night workers are in fact shift workers on weekends.” In addition to having to constantly adapt to a new “time zone,” people who work shifts may have family responsibilities, such as getting meals on the table and the kids ready for school, and social pressures that drag them away from even trying to adapt to a new schedule. “If everybody is going out for a drink at seven o’clock in the evening, shift workers may go along with them even if they then have to go to work for 8 hours,” says Rusak. Working counter to your natural biological clock isn’t easy to begin with, but it gets even more difficult as you get older. “It’s easier to move your rhythms when you’re younger; you’re more tolerant of sleep deprivation; more easily able to sleep when you’re not that sleepy naturally,” according to Morehouse. The experts agree that night and shift workers should try to minimize sleep deprivation. “That means that when you get home from work, even though it’s light outside because you’re coming home in the morning, have something light to eat so you’re not woken by hunger, but then go to bed,” says Dr. Morehouse. She suggests protecting yourself from bright light as much as possible on your way home in the morning. One option, adds Dr. Atul Khullar, a psychiatrist, and Medical Director, Northern Alberta Sleep Clinic (MedSleep Edmonton), is to wear special glasses that filter out ultraviolet (UV) rays. He also suggests hanging “blackout” curtains in the bedroom to block out the sunlight. And when you get up, expose yourself to as much light as possible. You might want to invest in a light box that mimics outdoor light and is typically used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) a type of depression linked to lack of sunlight. Khullar also recommends “strategic” power naps – short sleeps of 20 to 30 minutes preferably before 1 or 2 p.m. “The key is not to nap for too long and make sure the nap is not too close to your shift.”

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