Burning the midnight oil

18 March 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

I’ve never understood the term ‘night owl’. The word ‘night’ seems more than a little superfluous in this case – I mean, how many owls do you see flying around during the day?

Misgivings about its composition aside, ‘night owl’ is still a term that I identify with quite strongly. When left to my own devices I’ll often find myself staying awake until after 3am and waking sometime after 10am.

If my mother is to be believed, such sleep patterns can be explained by a phenomenon known as ‘delayed sleep phase syndrome’ (DSPS). According to an article on sleepdisorderchannel.com people with DSPS have an ‘internal biological clock’ that doesn’t match up with the ‘external environment’. Furthermore, ‘patients with DSPS typically are unable to fall asleep before 2am and have extreme difficulty waking early (e.g. by 7am).’

This would certainly explain why I struggle to get out of bed for the 4am breakfast shift. It also gives me a valid excuse for refusing to do such shifts – ‘sorry boss, I can’t. I’ve got DSPS!’

My mother recently cured herself of a lifelong (but only recently diagnosed) DSPS affliction through the use of tinted goggles.

Exposure to blue light is widely believed to inhibit the production of melatonin – a chemical produced by the pineal gland which causes us to become drowsy. By wearing blue goggles in the morning my mother was able to decrease the amount of melatonin being produced in her brain, thereby preventing her from feeling excessively tired. By wearing amber-coloured, blue-light-blocking goggles in the evening she was able to increase her melatonin supply, making her feel tired before she normally would.

I mean, it makes perfect sense. During the day we are exposed to a significant amount of blue light courtesy of Rayleigh scattering. This slows melatonin production and thereby prevents us from falling asleep during the day. Conversely, once the sun has set, melatonin production is able to commence which then begins to make us tired. The use of tinted-goggles merely brings greater control to the system and allows the user to sleep and wake closer to the desired time.

While DSPS can be a great inconvenience to those whose suffer from it, it also has potential benefits. For example, when our hotel’s front office was short-staffed for Sunday night’s 11pm to 7am shift they asked me to switch teams and help out. I agreed straight away, grateful for the experience and also confident that my sleep habits would make staying awake for an overnight shift fairly simple. In theory anyway.

In order to properly adjust myself to the overnight shift I began preparing on Friday night. I got home at 9:30pm and by the time 11pm rolled around I was already struggling. By 3am I had gotten my second wind and I somehow managed to last until 7am.

I woke the next day at 2pm and, after working that evening, I upped the ante, pushing through until 8:30am before finally succumbing to sleep.

To my great surprise I was able to put the late nights to use, getting stuff done while there was no one around. But by the same token, it also gets kind of lonely at the time of night – while normal people tend to be asleep at 4am I was awake, cleaning the house in a haze of semi-consciousness.

To my great frustration the aforementioned haze seemed to linger across the weekend, despite getting eight hours sleep each day. Even now, almost three days after finishing the overnight shift, I can still feel it tugging at my eyelids like some invisible weight. It’s kind of like jet lag without the excitement of overseas travel.

The fact that it was only a single shift probably compounded the problem as I needed to get back into a ‘normal’ routine straight away. Altering one’s sleeping habits so drastically for one night is like, to return to the jet lag analogy, what it might feel like to fly to London for the weekend. Not really worth the effort.

 Beyond all that, there is one important issue that continues to confuse me – when you wake up at 7pm after going to bed at 10am, what meal are you supposed to eat? Do you eat dinner, given that it’s 7pm? Or do you eat breakfast given that you’ve just woken up?

But the inconvenience of not knowing what meal to eat and a particular time is of little concern when compared to claims made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2007. According to Vincent Cogliano from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) there is ‘enough of a pattern in people who do shift work to recognise that there’s an increase in cancer’. While the evidence is not entirely conclusive, it was enough to prompt the IARC to add ‘overnight shift work’ to a list of probable carcinogens.

Add to that an increased risk of developing depression and I think I might have grounds to refuse any future night shifts…

Matt de Neef is upstart co-editor, and blogs at A Cursory Glance.