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How a Crazy Sleep Schedule Seriously Stresses You Out

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The eight-hour law of sleep is a golden health rule thought to be bendable. Not everyone needs a solid eight (Margaret Thatcher famously ran the U.K. on four!); some people (myself included) need more; and when you log those hours (from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. or 1 a.m. to 9 a.m.) isn’t as important as simply logging them. Everyone’s circadian rhythms are different, after all, right? And many sleep experts will tell you that the ol’ “your best zzz's come before midnight” mantra doesn’t actually hold true. (Need a better nighttime plan? Follow these 12 steps for better sleep.)

We also know that shift-work is b-a-d—for your body, mental health, and overall well-being. It’s so bad, in fact, that the World Health Organization (WHO) categorizes it as a carcinogen. So it should come as no surprise that recent research out of France linked 10 years of working weird hours (a la, the night shift) to 6.5 years of age-related cognitive decline. (Ouch.) Don't have to worry about clocking in after dark? The new study also found that 50 days of any irregular schedule (that means going to bed past midnight or waking up before 5 a.m.) was associated with significant mental tolls and 4.3 years of age-related cognitive decline. That’s bad news for early birds and night owls, alike.

“Going to bed and getting up at these times is incredibly stressful to the body," says Chris Winter, M.D., and medical director of the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, VA. And stress can induce cortisol—and with it potential atrophy of certain structures in the brain (like the hippocampus), he adds. Something else to consider: All of that stress can exacerbate weight gain, diabetes, and hypertension—all of which can affect cognition.

A good rule of thumb: “The later we go to bed—provided we have to get up at a specific time—the greater the stress of poor or inadequate sleep, which can have very real effects on our bodies over time. Stay up all night once a year; no biggie. Do it more nights than not; bad news.” So what’s a girl to do if her sleep schedule’s a little wonky? Follow Winter’s three tips, below.

1. Rack up the hours—whenever you can. Most shift workers sleep 5 to 7 hours less than day workers per week, which is a recipe for health disasters.

2. Try to group late nights/early mornings together. Burning the midnight candle at work a few nights this week? Have a few pre-dawn wakeup calls? Best to plan a few days of strange sleeping hours instead of rapidly going back and forth with an abnormal schedule.

3. Take care of your body. Even if you’re jet-lagged, drained, or downright exhausted, eat right and exercise. Trust us: Fruit, vegetables, and as little as an evening walk will always leave you feeling better than the drive-thru.

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