what shift-work does to your body

By Michael Tambo
April 2012
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In today’s capitalistic society where the need to make profit surpasses any other need, people no longer care about their health and all that matters to them is making more and more money to enrich themselves and their families.

As a result of the need to maximise profit, many companies have increased their production capacities in order to boost their company’s productivity. Thus, they have resorted to employees working for longer hours in order to meet deadlines. They have also introduced day and night shifts to ensure 24-hour production.

Amidst all this comes the shocking discovery of a sleeping disorder best known as Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder, which according to research conducted by medical experts, affects about 60% of the shift workers around the world.

Doctor Shaun Whittaker; a local clinical psychologist defines Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder as, “a persistent sleep disruption leading to excessive sleepiness or sleeplessness due to a mismatch between the sleep schedule required by the person’s environment and the circadian patterns.”

“Circadian rhythm is a biological system, which conforms to the day to day-night or sleep-wake cycle. When the system is disturbed, the biological rhythms are thrown off, which result in ill effects - since the sleep-wake cycle is synchronised with several hormones such as growth hormones or melatonin,” says Dr Whittaker.

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders all involve a problem in the timing of when a person sleeps and when they are awake. The human body has a master circadian “clock” in a control center of the brain known as the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) and the circadian rhythms are important in determining human sleeping patterns.

This entails that when a person works at night and sleeps during the day, their body’s internal clock needs to reset to let them sleep during the day.

This internal clock, according to Dr Whittaker, regulates the timing of such body rhythms as temperature and hormone levels. The primary circadian rhythm that this body clock controls is the sleep-wake cycle.

According to a research he carried out, about 60% of night-shift workers have this disorder. This implies that nurses, mine workers, doctors, police officers, bar tenders, truck drivers and airplane pilots, etc are at risk of having these sleep disorders.

Shift work that changes on a frequent basis makes developing a consistent sleep schedule difficult. Also, people who work during the nights often have to deal with daytime family or social obligations, or may be interrupted by people who are awake during the day.

Many people who work night shifts or who travel a lot resort to sleeping pills during daytime and end up using caffeine or stimulants during their night shifts. 

Then, of course the big issue is what they do on the nights they are not working. Do they go to sleep as if they did not work during the night? Or, do they stay up and go to sleep according to the system they have in place for their night-shift schedules?

“There is a certain pattern of sleeping, which the human body adjusts to and becomes part of the biological system of the body. Sleeping is a very important part of our existence and as for children, some growth hormones are released during sleep,” says Dr Whittaker.

Dr Whittaker is concerned about the fact that people who work in strategic jobs end up overworking and this has a diverse effect on their well-being and affects their social and family ties.

“We normally do not discuss the effects of working for long hours and tend to forget that these people are at risk of the disorders, yet they work in strategic job positions that hold our economy intact and tend to neglect their health needs,” adds Dr Whittaker.

Circadian rhythm disorders can be caused by many factors, including shift-work, pregnancy, time zone changes, medications and changes in routine.

The different types of circadian rhythm disorders include Jet Lag or Rapid Time Zone Change Syndrome, which affects people who travel across several time zones; Shift-work Sleep Disorder, which affects people who work during the nights or on rotating shifts. The Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS) is characterised by a much later-than-normal timing of sleep onset and offset and a period of peak alertness in the middle of the night.

The advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome is characterised by difficulty in staying awake in the evenings and difficulty in staying asleep in the mornings, while the non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder in which the affected individual’s sleep occurs later each day, with the period of peak alertness also continuously moving around the clock from day to day .

These disorders lead to complaints of insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness, with impairment in important areas of functioning and quality of life. Current treatments primarily involve the use of circadian synchronising agents, such as light, to realign the internal and external environments.

The symptoms of circadian sleep rhythm disorders manifest as chronic insomnia, perpetual sleepiness, unexpected drowsiness and dozing, as well as impaired mental and physical abilities.

Shift-work sleep disorders are hard to treat but there are various approaches to improving the condition. One approach is to take short naps before and during the work shifts.

Another option is to use bright light treatment to affect natural circadian rhythms. Bright light exposure as night falls can be effective for ‘phase shifting’ and altering the body’s sleep clock.

Melatonin or melatonin sleep aids are another possibility.

Night-shift workers taking this supplement during the daytime to promote the release of this sleep-promoting hormone have reported good results.

Dr Whittaker says in order to control the circadian sleep rhythm disorders, companies can resort to putting the young and single employees on night-shifts and avoid putting the old people on because they are affected more by the circadian sleep rhyme disorders than young people. PF