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Heart Disease Health Center

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Working Night Shift Affects More Than Your Social Life

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Your biological clock tells you that the sleepiest time of the day is 4 a.m., Hirshkowitz says, yet many shift workers drink coffee around that time to stay awake. "Then they can't go to sleep, or they sleep but wake up a short time later," he says. "It's equivalent to drinking coffee after dinner."

Shift workers often develop odd or destructive habits like trying to change their sleep habits on the weekends because they want to be with their friends. According to Hirshkowitz, this is the wrong thing to do. "It creates a cycle of sleep deprivation," he says.

He advises that if you have to work a night shift, you should keep your sleep patterns the same on your days off, and you should protect the time when you're supposed to sleep. If you have to change shifts constantly, you also protect your sleep time; don't exercise within two hours of trying to sleep, but do exercise; use blackout curtains. In other words, practice what Hirshkowitz calls "sleep hygiene."

Circadian rhythms also seem to control the amount of and time when various hormones are released in the body, such as cortisol, growth hormone, and testosterone. Because the release time of these substances might not match your schedule, it can lead to health problems, the Italian researchers say.

Hirshkowitz says it's easy to see these effects. "What happens if you haven't had enough sleep? With sleep deprivation, your balance is off, you have gastrointestinal upset, your eyes ache, and you're more prone to colds," he tells WebMD.

As for Davis, he knows that he needs more sleep, but he's not ready to take the step to correct his chronic sleep deprivation. "Basically, I either live with it or find another job," he says.

"I'm a day person, and I like to go to bed early and get up early," he says, adding that the first five years he worked this shift, he didn't have a problem with going from night sleep to day sleep. But now he does. The experts would tell him that his pattern of sleeping during the day on weeks he's working then sleeping at night on the weeks he's off are causing his insomnia -- and could be seriously affecting his health.

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