Monday, 28 November 2011

Simply obey your biological clock: Shift work and night work risk on health.

El riesgo en la salud de trabajar en la noche y realizar turnos nocturnos: Simplemente escucha a tu reloj biológico
Do you feel or have you heard that working at night increases your productivity because your brain is at its peak? If so, please remember that there is research that warn on the health risks of shift work and night work. Why? In short, scientists suggest that alterations on our biological clock can damage our bodies. That seems pretty logical. Remember we are simple natural beings, and just like birds, we are basically made for working with day light. Unbelievable? Just read some of the articles cited below.
A psychologist in high school who taught us some study techniques, used to tell us that our brain is at its peak at two times: early in the morning and late at night. When I entered the university, the friends of my brother used to take that suggestion, and their results were good. I tried to apply that technique on me, but I could not. The problem was that dusk was to me the time-to-leave-work whistle. At my grad school, I faced similar problems at the beginning, because as you may know, at high latitudes, during late fall and during the winter, it becomes dark very early  (about 4 pm). Then, my biological clock used to play tricks on me and I had to wake up early in the morning to recover the time wasted; However, I stopped getting mad with myself after having read an article that warned on the risks of night work. 

What does research suggest?

Keyword: Circadian rhythm (It is regulated by light; The body's biological clock generates and maintains circadian rhythms in temperature, blood pressure, sleep and wakefulness, mental performance and the synthesis of certain hormones-extracted from an article written by Jeremy Laureance).

Research suggest that shift work and night work include the risk of chronic disease, including cancer. The causes suggested are, e.g., the exposure to light at night which suppresses the physiologic production of melatonin, a hormone that has antiproliferative effects on intestinal cancers (Schernhammer et al., 2003); the circadian disruption of sleep patterns (The International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2007); the positive relation between telomere length, a proposed marker of aging, with sleep duration. On the other hand, a recent review by Wang et al. (2011) indicates that the evidence is not conclusive because chronic diseases can occur due to a combination of risk factors.

Is the research being considered in public policy?

Despite the risks, our wealthy modern society demands these enormous night-workers to offer their life to all. We should not only be thankful to them, but also, we all should be entitled to think beyond for measures to diminish the risks of carrying such demanding tasks. In the developed world, some governments have taken measures on that (could not be named countermeasures, though). An interesting example is the compensation that the Danish government pays to women who developed breast cancer after having spent several years working night shifts (read an article with a reference on the topic).

Are people at mid latitudes happier?

I was asked for that question/compliment several times when I was abroad. I live in a country at 16deg LAT where there is not much difference between the sunlight duration in winter and summer. Then, considering that light is relevant on regulating the circadian cycle, the question/compliment does not sound as strange as it seemed at the beginning. From the psychological perspective, research suggest that sunlight may be may be a key factor in the mood of people, as said by Aarohee Desai-Gupta, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. "The longer the period of sunlight, the longer the feeling of well-being generally". We have more energy, feel more active, more creative and happier", she compliments. Very interesting thoughts gathered by Philippa Roxby, a health reporter at the BBC News, after she asks herself "Does too little sunlight give us all the winter blue?" (link to the article in English, and in Spanish). According to her research, some people adapt easier than others. Those who don´t  are diagnosed as carriers of the seasonal affective disorder SAD, which as bad as it sounds, can be treated with a "light therapy" set, which consists of a daylight simulation lamp that helps patients to gradually wake up and then feel like getting out of bed. Interesting, right?

"Does too little sunlight give us all the winter blues?", by Philippa Roxby, BBCnews health report, Nov 13 2011.

 En español: "Cuando la falta de luz provoca depresión", BBCMundo, Nov, 2011.

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