Having a newborn around means sleep is largely a thing of the past. Even before that, though, I spent many a night writing away. Which is something hardly unusual, when it comes to writers. So many people have told me that they do their best (or only) writing at night, that one would think it’s almost a prerequisite.
Which got me thinking about sleep deprivation and strange writing habits. Especially once I saw a fascinating article in the Economist, which explained the adverse side-effects this can have.
As new research suggests, night work is very unhealthy indeed. One study found that the longer nurses in South Korea had worked the night shift, the more likely they were to be obese. Another study, of retired car workers in China, found that shift work was associated with high blood pressure and diabetes. And a French study in 2014 found that ten years of shift work was associated with cognitive decline equivalent to an extra six-and-a-half years of ageing.
People who work at night suffer in two ways. First, a new schedule throws the body’s “circadian clock”—the inbuilt mechanism that regulates waking and sleeping—out of alignment. Night workers eat when their bodies are not ready for food and try to sleep when they are not tired. That leads to the second problem: night-shift workers simply do not sleep enough.
It is hard to know whether sleep disruption or exhaustion causes ill-health—or both together. A link between night work and type 2 diabetes, for example, might be because eating at the wrong times leads to more free fatty acids or because exhausted people eat more, or even because it can be hard to get wholesome food in the middle of the night.
In theory, night workers could avoid health problems by completely switching to a night-time schedule. But weekends, social obligations and sunlight make that impossible for most. In fact, the only people who seem to manage it are shift workers on offshore oil rigs, who labour in windowless rooms and do not take weekends off. But they suffer from jet lag when they return home.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a nap…