Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

How To Survive The 24/7 Society

Isn’t it great? You can shop in the supermarket at two in the morning, go on-line, check your bank balance and pay your bills at three, nip round to the all night garage, fill your tank, have a coffee and a doughnut at four and still get home to watch a movie on satellite TV before the milkman comes and you can enjoy your Shredded Wheat. An hour’s catnap and you’re off to work.

And all because we inhabit the non-stop world of 24/7 living.

But there’s a terrible price to pay for this lifestyle and it’s even worse if you have to work it. There’s no escaping the fact that disrupted and irregular sleep patterns take a terrible toll on your health. It’s not so long ago that all shops shut for lunch, had one day a week when they closed in the afternoon, and no-one stayed open all day on Saturday. Sunday really was a day of rest. But not any more.

Even the Sunday morning lie-in, followed by a leisurely breakfast with the kids and family lunch, has vanished. 78 percent of you are up and doing by nine o’clock, checking the e-mails, reading the text messages or answering the mobile phone. Then 50 percent of you go shopping and 25 percent go to work - what sort of rest is this?

In France where I now live and for many of our other European neighbours, things are much better. Few of them have adopted the transatlantic 24/7 life and in most countries shops are not open seven days a week or all night, so they enjoy a slower pace of life than we do. In the Mediterranean the early morning/late afternoon pattern with a siesta in the middle works extremely well. A recent survey of 12,000 people found that 38 percent of them worked best in the evenings and 41 percent felt happier working in the morning.

So why don’t we make better use of flexible working times to suit the individual, that at least would be a step in the right direction.

In order to support 24/7 there’s been a huge increase in the number of people working shifts – almost five million, which is getting on for 20 percent of the workforce – and they’re the ones that suffer the worst health problems as a result.

Professor Neil Stanley, Chairman of the British Sleep Society, is one of the world’s experts on conditions caused by disrupted sleep patterns. ”My major concern is accidents,” says the professor, ”world catastrophes like the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear accidents, and the Bhopal chemical explosion in India, all happened in the small hours of the night shift, when people’s concentration and alertness were at their lowest ebb.

”It’s well documented that driving home after the night shift makes you more likely to have an accident than if you’re four times over the alcohol limit, and you’re 40 percent more likely to have any sort of accident whether it’s in the car or at home. There is no doubt that shift work kills you early. ”

Everyone suffers side-effects of 24/7 living, but women seem to come off worst. Constant disruptions of regular sleep patterns increase the risk of breast cancer and women working a night shift at least once a week for three years or more have a 60 percent increased risk. Being exposed to bright light all through the working night increases oestrogen levels which also upset the menstrual cycle. This can be the trigger of PMS, irregular periods and fertility problems. When they do manage to conceive they’re likely to have a far more difficult pregnancy with more medical problems than women who are not doing shift work.

The 24/7 lifestyle affects men too and though they may not be in the supermarket in the middle of the night – unless they work there - they’re much more likely to be putting in longer hours at work, sitting up for much of the night surfing the net or watching sport and adult movies on the telly. If they have to work late into the night, according to the TUC, they may be much more at risk of physical violence. Late night petrol pump attendants or small shop, restaurant or take-away owners and staff are vulnerable when pubs and clubs close. If they’re actually on shift work their chances of developing serious heart disease go up by a frightening 40 percent.

Youngsters aren’t immune either. Do you know what your children do once you’ve all gone to bed? They’re on their computers, text messaging their friends, Play Stations in overdrive, and they’ve certainly got a DVD player too. No wonder you have a job waking them for their paper round at 6.30 in the morning, they’ve probably only had three or four hours sleep. This lifestyle easily becomes habitual and once the routine of regular sleep patterns is disrupted, it’s very hard to get back into, so they suffer just the same as adults.

The human body is programmed to work in sync with day and night, and this circadian rhythm controls our bodily functions. No matter how long you maintain an irregular lifestyle, with too little sleep and too many waking hours during darkness, you will never cope with it. You can no more adapt your biological clock to being awake at night and asleep in daylight than you could make it adapt to living underwater.

Men, women and children who are deprived of regular night time sleep, whether by choice, habit or occupation, are all likely to suffer some, or at worst most of a range of health problems.

Emotional disturbances are common. You get more irritable and have increasingly bad moods. You may over-react to trivial events and become over-sensitive and fly off the handle at the slightest criticism. Memory and concentration start to fail and you make silly mistakes when trying to do simple tasks. You may even forget important things like collecting children from school. Children that have turned into night owls become disruptive at school, neglect their homework and can even fall asleep during lessons.

Constant physical tiredness or chronic fatigue are common factors and in adults they nearly always go hand-in-hand with diminishing libido and sex drive. This can easily become the straw that breaks the back of an already strained relationship.

For shift workers constipation and stomach problems are common. The first because of dehydration and the second because of irregular and bad eating. Few people realise that in the middle of the night when you should be safely tucked up in bed and sleeping, the body’s white cell count drops so your immune defences are less effective. If you’ve really embraced the 24/7 society, those middle of the night trips to the supermarket mean you are much more vulnerable to all the bacteria and viruses you come into contact with. So it’s not surprising that night owls get more coughs, colds and flu.

Living life on the 24/7 treadmill is exactly the same as being permanently jetlagged, but it’s not going to go away after a few nights sleep. As your symptoms get worse, you look for crutches and these usually take the form of more caffeine, more alcohol, more cigarettes. Then there is often the addition of sleeping pills to help you get off when you finally do decide to go to bed for a few hours.

Like all sane people you probably detest the drunk driver who takes a child’s life. But next time you get in your car to do a late night shop, think of this. Any driver who’s been awake for 17 hours is as dangerous behind the wheel as if they were over the drink-drive limit. If you were up at seven this morning, and you’re planning your supermarket shopping for midnight – please think again.

Eating to survive the 24/7 world

Be a grazer. Eat lots of small meals throughout the day or night to stoke up your energy. If you don’t get hungry you won’t reach for the high sugar, high fat snacks that pile on the pounds.

Always keep a handy bag of mixed dried fruits, nuts and seeds. They’ll give you a mixture of instant energy, slow release energy and masses of vitamins and minerals.

Eat as wide a variety of foods as you can. It’s the easiest thing in the world to take the same sandwich, pack of pot noodles, or something to pop in the workplace microwave for every working day or night, but this limits the spread of essential nutrients.

With the cold weather coming take a thermos of thick home made vegetable soup, a warming casserole or stew, and a couple of wholemeal rolls. Add some fresh fruit and you’ve got an energy-giving, sustaining and nourishing feast.

Try not to eat at your desk or workstation whenever you go to work. There must be something healthy in the works canteen if there is one. If not, go out for the occasional pizza and salad or take-away shish kebab in pitta bread – avoid the donner kebab like the plague, it’s certainly full of fat and quite probably bugs too.

Raw vegetable sticks with a pot of hummus, guacamole or taramasalata, with pitta bread, some salad and a piece of exotic fresh fruit like kiwi, paw-paw or mango, all make interesting and healthy variations.

Take your proper breaks, get some fresh air and exercise, if it’s appropriate, and otherwise take time out to read a paper or a book. You’ll get back to work refreshed and more productive.

Supplements That Help

These are not meant as crutches to keep you going when you shouldn’t, but they can help to keep you mentally and physically alert when you need to be and improve the quality of sleep when it has to be taken at odd times.

Karma is the licensed herbal remedy that can help lift your mood when you feel down in the slumps. This traditional herbal medicine contains the stress busting plant, St John’s wort that also lets you cope better with stress. See www.karmamood.co.uk

NiteHerb is a Registered extract of Valerian root, a natural herbal medicine that helps to promote a good night’s sleep. Stress, depression and worry are all causes of insomnia, and coping with life in the 24/7 world we live in can be a trigger of all of them. For more info see www.niteherb.co.uk


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