I spent 15 years doing rotating shifts, which included many nights working as a physician in the emergency room and previously as a law enforcement officer.
Those experiences give me plenty of insight regarding the effect of working nights on human physiology. What I didn’t appreciate until recently was the many things you can do to help improve the night shift situation, which I will get to in just a bit.
First, let me cover what is difficult about working nights. Sticking to science, I think it is fair to assert that life has been present for a very long time, probably at least several hundred million years (counting single cell organisms) and at least a few million years for humans, including our early ancestors.
Since life evolved under the influence of light from the sun, we’ve experienced several hundred million years of light influencing life.
Before electricity, almost no one worked nights. However, with the advent of electric lighting 150 years ago, suddenly we were able to work nights as well. But the absence of proper sunshine in our lives when we work nights exposes us to increased incidence of diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and even cancer.
Yikes, you might be thinking: “I need to get off these nights shifts.” But there’s no need to panic if you work evenings. The increased risks we are seeing are not really that high, but my point is people working nights should at least be aware of the possible health-related consequences.
Additional effects include weight gain from the influence of poor quality sleep affecting hormones, and a lack of Vitamin D, which is important in our overall health.
One hormone very important to sleep management is melatonin. You can buy it over the counter, but I don’t recommend it. Our body makes the real stuff naturally and it’s much more preferable over popping pills. Our bodies produce melatonin when we get exposed to decreasing light. Melatonin helps induce sleep and kicks in when you want to be heading to bed.
As sunshine – specifically the blue wavelength within – is sensed by specialized cells in our eyes, our production of melatonin starts shutting off and serotonin and cortisol start to kick in. You want serotonin (the “happy feel good” hormone) and cortisol, the stress coping hormone, to be naturally produced when you wake up.
These days, human beings are still possessed with a physiology evolved from millions of years of sunshine and darkness guiding our circadian rhythms, yet now must also contend with artificial light influences and night shifts.
Artificial lighting can emulate sunshine and either interfere or aid our health. LED TVs, cell phone screens, iPads, and other household and personal electronics are increasingly exposing us to artificial “sunshine,” which plays havoc with our hormones and health.
So what is a night shift worker to do?
1. Master the light genie! Managing light to prevent its potentially disruptive influence when you are going to sleep and exploiting it when you wake up will do wonders.
I have insomnia patients wearing amber-tinted glasses that filter out the bioactive blue wavelength light. (Amazon sells Uvex or Solar Shields … if you wear glasses get the wraparound kind to cover your glasses). Wear the glasses toward the end of your shift, keep them on when you drive home, and until you go to bed.
2. Use a Sleep Mask: Get a high quality sleep mask to keep free from the influence of light that might stray into your bedroom. Amazon sells great ones for about $25-$30 and your sleep and health is worth it.
3. Build a Cave! Make your bedroom dark, cool and quiet. Use blackout shades or even put aluminum foil on your windows, anything to make your room dark. Wear ear plugs so it is quiet and consider augmenting your AC so it is cool.
4. Make your sunshine even when it is night! Purchase some full spectrum LED light bulbs. They are pricey at about $40 a bulb, but will save you money in energy costs and help produce serotonin, cortisol and stop the melatonin, so you will be ready for work.
These four suggestions should be helpful to night workers, who are often fighting fatigue and desperate for sleep.
Dr. Sean O’Mara is an Area Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks in the Minneapolis area.
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