Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beware, night owls

SINGAPORE - This festive weekend, Yan Zhengrong will be at work till 5am every day. Working night shifts is a common occurrence for the 26-year-old chef. During the festive period, he is lucky to get by with four hours of sleep each day.

Likewise, Karen (not her real name), a shop assistant, often works overnight. And even though she is dead tired after work, Karen has difficulties falling asleep in the daytime due to the many errands she has to run.

When she wants to sleep, she is often kept awake by the noise from the daily activities of her family members. As a result, she is often tired and listless.

Shift workers like Zhengrong and Karen are not uncommon in Singapore. Amid the festivities in the coming weeks, those working in the food and beverage, sales, entertainment and security industries are likely to be rostered to work during odd hours.

While pulling an all-nighter occasionally is harmless, sleep experts TODAY spoke to warned that irregular sleeping hours can disrupt a person's sleep quality in the long term, putting him or her at high risk of developing circadian rhythm sleep disorders (CRSD).

Shift workers tend to sleep fewer hours than people who work regular office hours, so they are more prone to long-term partial sleep deprivation, said Dr Lim Li Ling, director of Singapore General Hospital's sleep disorders unit.

She added: "Our bodies operate optimally on a regular internal 'clock'. For instance, most people sleep best between 10pm to midnight and 6am to 8am, with about six to eight hours of sleep daily."


Why working nights affects sleep

An irregular, chaotic sleep schedule causes a person's sleep pattern to be "out of sync".

"For a person who works on a shift system, his body's natural sleep-wake system goes haywire. The body won't know when to sleep and when to stay awake," explained Dr Kenny Pang, an ENT consultant, sleep specialist and director of the Pacific Sleep Centre.

Given enough time to readjust, Dr Lim said the body is able to adapt to different sleep times. This explains why people are able to adapt when they travel long distances and overcome jet lag.

But with shift workers, she added that the rapidly changing work times - changing shifts every few days - makes it difficult for the body to adjust and can be very stressful on the body.

According to Dr Pang, older people generally find it harder to cope with irregular sleeping hours. This is because as we age, we "produce less melatonin physiologically".

Melatonin is a natural sleep hormone produced by the pineal gland, which is located in the brain.


Poor sleep bad for health

Restful sleep is essential for good health.

However, the experts said people generally wave off their sleep problems. At his clinic, Dr Pang estimated that CRSD sufferers make up under 10 per cent of his patients.

"For some reason, people do not regard sleep issues as a health problem, though they often seek a quick fix and ask for sleeping pills," said Dr Lim candidly.

The negative effects of sleep deprivation is often immediate.

"The brain suffers the most immediately in terms of function when one is sleep deprived," said Dr Lim.

"Those who don't get enough good quality sleep suffer poor work or school performance and they have difficulty concentrating in tasks which require attention and vigilance."

In the long run, sleep deprivation is associated with a host of health problems including increased risk of heart disease, depression, weight gain and, at worst, a shorter life span, she added.


Can it be treated?

According to the experts, this form of sleep disorder can be managed with good sleep practices, and the use of simple interventions such as bright light therapy.

"Lifestyle factors are often a source of sleep problems and the patient can be taught how to develop habits and routines to help adjust to shift work better," said Dr Lim.

Dr Pang, who does not encourage the use of sleeping pills due to their side effects, said that low doses of melatonin supplements may help, in addition to practicing good sleep hygiene.

While it may not be practical for some people to quit their shift jobs, Dr Lim advised those with sleep disorders to avoid shift work if possible.

"Choose jobs with regular hours because having multiple sleep-related disorders can make it even more likely that you end up being sleep deprived," she said.


Working shifts? Tips from the experts on how to get better sleep

- Never underestimate the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise, avoiding alcohol and excessive caffeine can help you sleep better.

- After your night shift, try to avoid bright light by wearing sunglasses while commuting home from work in the morning.

- A permanent shift is easier to adjust to than rotating shifts. If shifts have to be rotated, the rotation should not be too rapid. For instance, at least once every two weeks.

- On days when you do not have to work at night, make sure you get out to get some light exposure so that you fall asleep more easily at night.

- TODAY/rl


Taken from ChannelNewsAsia.com; source article is below:
Beware, night owls

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