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Nightshift: 'Different lifestyle in reverse'

By Saeed Ahmed, CNN
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Overnight ride with EMS
  • Poll finds 46 percent of Americans have worked the night shift at some point
  • Not surprisingly, more than half of those who did works overnights said they hated it
  • Study found that night shift work causes body's internal mechanism to go amok
  • Night workers will enjoy one less hour of work when daylight time starts this weekend

Editor's note: Saeed Ahmed is a newsdesk editor at CNN Wire whose workday begins shortly before midnight. Watch "Nightshift In Focus," a one-hour special hosted by Tom Foreman, at 3 p.m. ET Saturday on CNN. And remember to move your timepieces forward an hour when Daylight Savings Time starts at 2 a.m. ET Sunday.

(CNN) -- Every night when America puts on its PJs and heads to bed, I -- and thousands of others like me -- head out the door.

We are part of a sizable, but largely invisible, army of workers that clocks in after dark: cops and cabbies, DJs and deliverymen, jailers and journalists.

You call us "graveyard shift-ers." We call you "9-to-5-ers" or, if we're feeling envious, "normal."

A new CNN/Opinion Research poll found 46 percent of Americans have worked the night shift at some point in their lives. And, not surprisingly, more than half of those who did said they hated it.

Saeed Ahmed has always worked nights, whether as a newspaper reporter or a CNN editor.
Saeed Ahmed has always worked nights, whether as a newspaper reporter or a CNN editor.

Living life backwards is a challenge.

We rest best when our body is secreting high levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our awake and sleep cycles. And, says Dr. Thomas LoRusso, those levels begin to increase around 10:30 p.m.

"Between 2 to 4 o' clock in the morning, that level peaks. So, it's real easy to fall asleep between 2 to 4 in the morning," says LoRusso, a pulmonary sleep specialist at the Northern Virginia Sleep Diagnostic Center.

"And when you come home from a night shift, you're trying to fall asleep at a time when there's bright light. And bright light naturally suppresses those melatonin levels."

Fact Check: Does working the night shift cause serious health effects?

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So what do you do? If you're my co-worker, you sip a glass of wine with your cereal to relax. If you're me, you pull tight your blackout curtains and hope the beagle doesn't howl.

"It is a different lifestyle in reverse. Eating patterns are all off, your sleeping patterns are all off," says Michael Fitten, who operates a tram that ferries passengers between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island in New York from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

See the great view Fitten enjoys driving the tram

But night shift work is more than just an inconvenience. Research has shown that it makes us prone to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, even cancer.

A study published last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that night shift work causes the body's internal mechanism to go amok.

It produces less leptin, the hormone that tells us when to stop eating.

Blood pressure shoots up. Glucose and insulin levels skyrocket.

Still, about 21 million workers continue to work hours outside the norm, the U.S. Labor Department says.

For some, it's a matter of choice.

We like the pace of the shift and the close relationships we cultivate with the handful of workers who're up in the dead of night. The counter-commute doesn't hurt. Neither does the differential pay.

Others who toil in the dark don't have much say.

Lynette Slaton has worked as a baker in New York for three years. The hours are a necessity: the goods have to be ready for sale by dawn. But Slaton finds the timing has an upside: She has a hand in raising her children during the day.

"When I look at them, I want them to have so much. But right now, with the way the economy is and everything, I just feel more secure being able to be with them and not having to put them in a day care setting so young."

I have always worked nights. First, as a newspaper reporter covering cops and crime. Now, as an editor at CNN Wire, keeping an eye on the world while America sleeps.

Despite the years spent in this cycle, I still gulp gallons of coffee and sneak a 15-minute power nap in a darkened conference room from time to time.

I suspect I sabotage myself by trying to keep "regular" hours on days off:

My internal clock keeps resetting itself, throwing off my circadian rhythm.

Working nights allows me to be a stay-at-home dad during the day spending time with my 7-year-old daughter, Zahra, and 2-month-old son, Samir.

"Books and bottles by day; bombs and bodies by night." That's how I compartmentalize my life.

Like my fellow night owls, I've had to make some trade-offs for this privilege, not just psychologically and physiologically but socially.

I get to spend little time with friends and family here. On the other hand, the time difference means my parents in Bangladesh -- 11-hours ahead of Atlanta -- can share with me what they had for lunch while I snack on a chocolate bar in the middle of the night.

'Books and bottles by day; bombs and bodies by night.' That's how I compartmentalize my life.
--Saeed Ahmed
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  • Harlem
  • Manhattan
  • Basketball
  • Hockey

Across the country, we night denizens do what we do to keep life well-oiled and running for everyone else.

At Philips Arena in Atlanta, workers race against the clock to convert an ice rink into a basketball court when the Atlanta Thrashers and the Atlanta Hawks have back-to-back games.

"When everybody else is asleep, this is when this building can change from one thing to the next," says Barry Henson, the arena's vice president of building and event operations.

See how the Philips team turns ice into wood

In Las Vegas, Nevada, Kevin Hentzell works nights replacing burnt or nonworking signs in the neon capital of the world. It's hard work -- the temperature easily exceeds 140 degrees by the signs and Hentzell must exercise caution so he's not electrocuted by the 15,000-volts zipping through the light bulbs.

Why do it at night? It's easier to spot outages in the dark.

Sure, it's an unusual way to live, but we take comfort in small victories.

Watch how Hentzell keeps Vegas bright through the night

This weekend, when Daylight Savings Time rolls around, you will lament losing an hour's sleep.

I will rejoice and leave work early.

The research of "In Focus" videographers is included in this report.