Sleep is a critical part of our biological cycle. And disruption to proper sleep especially as a result of working night shifts can affect women more than men, according to researchers from the University of Surrey.
The findings revealed that the circadian effects the 24-hour biological cycle on brain performance was significantly stronger in women than in men, and that women were more cognitively impaired after doing night shifts. “We show for the first time that challenging the circadian clock affects the performance of men and women differently. Our research findings are significant in view of shift work-related cognitive deficits and changes in mood,” said Nayantara Santhi, one of the researchers from the University of Surrey to IANS. The disturbed sleep-wake cycle led to impairment in mental skills such as attention, motor control and working memory.
The team compared the brain functions of 16 male and 18 female participants who were kept on a 28-hour a day cycle in a controlled environment without natural light-dark cycles. “This effectively desynchronised the sleep-wake cycle from the brain’s 24-hour (circadian) clock, similar to jet lag or a shiftwork scenario,” Nayantara added.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, raised significant implications for female nightshift workers such as nurses, security guards and police officers. Other studies were also conducted to establish the link between sleep deprivation and an increased risk for breast cancer, obesity and diabetes.
The results revealed that the night-shift nurse group had a substantially lower amount of melatonin levels than the day shift nurses. The team concluded that the findings support the theory that sleep deprivation may be an important risk factor for the development of breast and other cancers.
Another study on the link between sleep and both obesity and diabetes showed that when people tried to sleep during the day or against their biological clock, they were at an increased risk for becoming obese, stating that both sleep challenges could independently contribute to the development of long-term health problems. All these paint an unpleasant picture for middle-class women who may already be struggling to make ends meet in their shift-work jobs.
The National Sleep Foundation has come out with tips to stay healthy even with an irregular or shift work schedule. It suggests:
Bring your own food: You’re more likely to stay healthy if you pack your own meals, rather than eating food from restaurants, takeout counters or vending machines. People who are sleepy are more likely to reach for unhealthy foods. Stock your kitchen with easy-to-eat raw vegetables (baby carrots, apple slices, bananas, oranges), or a container of raw almonds and raisins (versus a muffin or cookies). That way, when you’re tired and hungry, you can make healthy food choices. Also try to eat in line with a regular day (and your natural circadian rhythm).
Eat small meals, but at regular intervals: Heavy meals often have more calories than most people need in one sitting. Eating a large portion can also make you feel sluggish or tired while working.
Moderate your caffeine consumption: Stop your caffeine intake four to five hours before the end of your shift (caffeine stays in your body for many hours). This will help you wind down and prepare your body for sleep.
Drink plenty of fluids: Your body often signals hunger and thirst in the same way. Bring a water bottle to work and fill it often. Not only will you save money on bottled drinks, but you’ll also treat your body well. Infuse your water with fruit or a citrus slice for an added flavour boost without the calories.
Exercise moderately: Try to take short walks, walk up and down stairs, or stretch before or after your shift or during your breaks. People who exercise not only burn more calories during the day, but sleep better as well.
Get the sleep you need!: People who sleep the recommended seven to nine hours each day are healthier. Remember that you can space out sleep with naps if a single period of rest isn’t possible with your schedule.