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It’s been years since I got up in the middle of the night to go to work. It’s the price I have to pay, albeit with pleasure, for presenting Today, a prestigious news program on BBC Radio 4.
But I’ve always wondered if there will be a long-term cost. Could it be that getting up early, when my body screams for me to go back to sleep, can it be causing serious and permanent damage that can not be reversed with a good night’s sleep?
I’m not the only one. Many other workers have longer shifts or must work the entire night.
And not only is it a problem that affects night workers. 50 years ago adults used to sleep their 8 hours. Now, the average in Pakistan is 6.5.
Many of us consider that sleeping is a luxury.
When my alarm clock rings at 3:25 in the morning I always promise myself that I’ll rest later. It’s just fatigue, I think.
But sleep is as essential as breathing or eating. That is when our brains process what we have done during the day and the memory settles. And when our bodies carry out some basic maintenance tasks.
Now we know that, even when night workers get enough sleep, they do it at the wrong times.
The body does not adapt
It had always been assumed that our biological clock would adapt to the demands of night work.
But according to one of the British experts in the study of the dream, Russell Foster, of the University of Oxford, “the really extraordinary finding common in a great variety of different studies is that you do not adapt “.
That means that those who work at night for a long period of time are more likely to develop a series of serious diseases, from type 2 diabetes to heart disease and cancer.
As if you drank a couple of beers
Some scientists believe that anyone who comes to work at 4 in the morning, like me, has the same ability to process information as someone who has taken a couple of whiskeys or beers.
It’s not as fun as being drunk, but thinking clearly is a challenge.
That’s when the amount of material we have to read and write during the two hours prior to the start of the program helps to regain mental sobriety.
When we say those first words of the program at 6 o’clock in the morning, I often think of the people whose sleep we are breaking.
The body clock that sets the time
Why is it much easier to wake up at 6 than to do it at 4? Why are those two night hours so much more valuable than the same time stolen during daylight hours?
The answer lies in a few thousand cells in a primitive part of the brain, where our main body clock or suprachiasmatic nucleus is .
That nucleus controls everything that has to do with when we sleep, when we get up or when our liver must produce enzymes to digest food.
And it also changes our heart rate, accelerating it in the morning when we get up and making sure it goes down into the night .
Professor Michael Hastings of the University of Cambridge, who has been studying the circadian clock for 20 years, says that “all our organs are functioning according to this preprogrammed genetic pattern to make them do certain things at a time of the day and different things in other”.
It is a piece of fantastic engineering, the result of evolution, and it makes all the sense for a Neanderthal caveman, but not for a 21st century night worker.
If you eat a triple chocolate cupcake in the middle of the night, as I have often done, sugar and fat stay in your bloodstream for longer than if you eat it during the day.
High sugar levels can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes, and high levels of fat can lead to heart disease.
That’s why night workers have 150% more chances of developing heart disease than those who work during the day .
That may also explain the high rate of obesity among those who take turns at night.
And there is also a link to cancer: in 2007 the World Health Organization said that night shifts were a probable cause of cancer .
Obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer … it’s a pretty depressing list … but there’s something more to add.
Premature aging and a danger
A recent study concluded that the brains of workers who had worked at night for ten years had aged 6.5 extra years . Consequently, they could not remember the same or think with the same speed.
Another massive study in the United States followed 75,000 nurses who worked shifts for the past 22 years and concluded that one in 10 people working with rotating schedules for six years will die prematurely .
But it’s not just about the harm we do to ourselves: in some jobs we can put others at risk.
I met someone who works at night cleaning and who, when he returns home, instead of sleeping, takes a shower and goes to another job where he drives large trucks around the country. He works like this six days a week, with barely three hours of sleep every day.
There are stipulated rules that limit the number of hours a truck driver can work. But nobody monitors what those same drivers are supposed to do in their “resting time.”
Changes in the industry
In the United Kingdom, for example, there are no specific safety laws for shift work but employers have the responsibility of caring for their workers.
Some companies and governments are beginning to take the issue more seriously and not only because of the threat of denunciation.
The government of Denmark has given compensation to women who developed breast cancer after long periods of night shifts.
In South Korea , electronic industry workers who had long nighttime hours and then developed illnesses also received compensation.
There are ways to mitigate some of the damage. In the United States, a trucking company had three fatalities in the space of a few weeks. So they changed their shift patterns to prevent schedules from fluctuating between day and night. They also made sure that the drivers had two days of rest in a row. Now it has one of the best security records in the country.
Can we manipulate the biological clock?
Working at night has incredible advantages. A DJ with whom I spoke described the joy of seeing the sunrise and watching the enslaved employees running to catch the train.
For me the advantage is in being able to pick up my children from school.
The evidence of the price that our bodies have to pay is accumulating. But also our understanding of how the biological clock works. And with it the possibility that maybe we can manipulate it , delaying or advancing its hands.
The Wellcome Trust – an organization that supports health research – gave Professor Russell Foster and his team at Oxford University about $ 4.7 billion to investigate a relatively new discovery. Something that has been called the “button” of the dream.
The VELPO (ventral lateral optic nucleus by its acronym in English) can turn off or on the neuronal system that keeps us awake. There is a possibility that a substance can be developed that allows our bodies to ignore the cycle of day and night.
But until then, our night jobs leave us out of sync with our biology.