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        Volume 11 |Issue 31| August 03, 2012 |


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Anika Hossain

When asked how most people like to spend their free time, sleeping will be one of the top ten choices on almost everyone's list. It is interesting however that while most of us claim to love sleep and despise waking up early, we also take pride in how well we can function day after day on little or no sleep.

Being an insomniac seems to be the “in” thing. People claim they can concentrate better at night, study and work more efficiently. Others claim they can catch up on all the things they cannot do because of their busy schedules during the day such as reading, watching movies, spending time with friends and families etc. Then there are some who have no choice and are forced to stay up for long hours working night shifts in order to survive.

Contrary to popular belief, the most damaging effect of sleepless nights are not the dark circles that make you look like the walking dead the next day. According to expert opinion, the lack of a proper sleep cycle may be devastating to your health.

Working all night can have serious health effects.
Photo: Anisur Rahman
Regular sleep deprivation can lead to long term increase in blood pressure. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

“We have biological clocks that can tell when it is day or night,” says Dr Tariqul Islam, “We also have hormones that are secreted during the day, these include various chemicals that give us energy to deal with the stresses during the day. This secretion is different and slower at night, and if we continue to function as we do during the day time, when we are supposed to be at rest, our body cannot cope with the additional stress which leads to health problems.”

One of the most common health problems resulting in the lack of sleep is obesity. “I have been working at a call centre at night to help contribute to my university fee,” says Ashfaque Alamgir, “I work four nights a week and I have noticed that ever since I took this job, I have been putting on quite a bit of weight. I think it's because I get hungry at night and am eating constantly while I work, and eating unhealthy food like chocolates, chips, biscuits and lots of coffee to keep me awake.”

According to Dan Hackam, associate professor at Western University, London, Ontario in Canada said shift workers were more prone to sleeping and eating badly (BBC news online). Research has shown that people who get less than six hours of sleep each night are more likely to gain weight than people who get eight or more hours of sleep regularly. This happens because, during sleep, our bodies secrete certain hormones that help to control appetite, energy, metabolism and glucose processing. When we decrease our sleep hours, it upsets the balance of these hormones. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone is one that is produced in excess when there is a lack of sleep. Insulin, that regulates glucose processing and helps fat storage, is also produced in higher amounts when there is a lack of sleep, which is associated with weight gain and an increased risk of diabetes.

Insufficient sleep is also associated with the low production of a hormone known as leptin, which informs the brain that the body has had enough food. At the same time the lack of sleep causes the secretion of higher levels of ghrelin, a chemical that rouses the appetite. This explains Alamgir's increased craving for food when he is working at night. Ghrelin makes us crave high calorie foods that give us a quick energy boost. Most importantly, the loss of energy that results from the loss of sleep will leave one too tired to work off the excess weight with exercise.

According to Jane White, research and information services manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, there are complex issues surrounding shift work and it can result in disturbed appetite and digestion, reliance on sedatives and/or stimulants, as well as social and domestic problems (BBC news online).

“I have trouble sleeping during the day after my night shift,” says security guard Kazi Dulal, “I sleep an hour or two in the afternoon but that's all. I don't think I have any major health problems but I do have breathing problems at times and feel a pressure on my left side.”

Research has shows that the increase in the production of cortisol or the stress hormone in people who suffer from hypertension can cause high blood pressure throughout the day. “People who sleep less develop long term problems such as chronic heart diseases, increase in stress, asthma and other conditions related to blood pressure and breathing,” says Dr Alam.

Due to high blood pressure, a person may become prone to strokes and other cardiovascular diseases, especially women. Studies have also found a connection between obstructive sleep apnea (disturbed sleep at night with multiple awakenings) and heart related diseases. People suffering from apnea also suffer from brief increases in blood pressure every time they awaken. This can lead to a long term increase in blood pressure which in turn puts one at risk of incurring heart related diseases.

“I am always in a bad mood the next day when I have worked all night,” says a Syed Farhan Ahmed, a journalist. “I can barely concentrate and I end up snapping at everyone for no reason.”

This kind of irritable behaviour can be seen in people who have spent one random sleepless night. Therefore, those who suffer from regular sleepless nights are at a risk of developing long-term mood disorders as lack of sleep is strongly correlated with mental distress, anxiety and depression. Studies have shown declining levels of optimism and social functioning, increasing anger and sadness in people suffering from chronic sleeplessness.

Since sleep plays an important role in thinking and learning, the lack of sleep can adversely effect these cognitive processes in various ways. It impairs alertness, reasoning, judgment, concentration, attention and problem solving. Since various sleep cycles play a role in consolidating memories, the lack of sufficient sleep will hamper the retention of information learned during the day. Sleep deprivation can cause serious accidents in the work place, especially if one is handling chemicals or heavy machinery.

“I have started doing night shifts about a year ago,” says Ayesha Anwar (not her real name), a ground hostess at an international airport. “I think I get enough sleep during the day, but I still feel very exhausted after work. I have also gotten ill, nothing serious just mild fevers, colds, aches and pains which were rare for me before I started working at night. I suppose I should sleep more during the day, but its very distracting and it always seems like there is so much to do.”

What Anwar is experiencing is a weakening of the immune system. When people feel ill, it is a natural tendency to sleep more. This is because, when our immune system is hard at work producing substances that help fight off our illness, these substances also cause fatigue. Therefore, those who sleep more have a better chance of fighting off certain illnesses because they get more rest and have periods of inactivity and stored energy.

The lack of sleep also has the ability to age you, since the cortisol released can break down skin collagen, a protein that keeps the skin smooth and resilient. Sleeplessness can also reduce sex drive, due to exhaustion and stress.

“In my opinion, regular lack of sleep can shorten one's lifespan,” says Dr Alam. “I strongly advise those who work night shifts to cut down their work hours if possible or stimulate night conditions during the day such as darkening the room, lowering the noise level and catching up on sleep. Even if there are very few short term effects, in the long term, the lack of sleep does take a toll on you.”

Most of us claim that sleep is the love of our lives but true to our nature we ignore this love and take it for granted, giving preference to other, seemingly more desirable activities. Hopefully, after learning the possible repercussions of cheating on sleep we will learn our lesson and stop being unfaithful and find ways to make amends. I am seriously considering it.


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