New research investigates the health effects of working night shifts, in particular, sleep patterns, hormone levels, and the risk of chronic diseases.
In the modern economy, many industries rely on employees working overnight shifts. These industries are generally those that require 24-hour services, such as healthcare, first-response teams, travel, and commerce. Over seventeen percent of American employees work between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., meaning that a large portion of the workforce participates in night shift work.
Working night shift impacts the body’s natural sleep/wake cycle, also referred to as circadian rhythm, and this is thought to alter the levels of various hormones. To determine the health risk associated with working night shift, an American study published to The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association examined the relationship between working night shifts and various health issues.
Researchers looked at observational studies, animal studies, and clinical trials between August 2018 and October 2018 that assessed the health effects of working night shift. They discovered that working night shift is associated with an increased risk of sleep disorders and metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and obesity that can lead to chronic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, researchers came up with a few ideas as to how night shift work and adverse health outcomes are related.
It is often difficult for night shift workers to establish a consistent sleep schedule, especially for those who switch between night and day shifts. This disturbs the body’s circadian rhythms, leading to abnormal hormone levels that can result in sleep disorders and metabolic syndrome. Some ways to fix this is to consistently work either night or day shifts and to sleep between seven and eight hours every 24 hours, scheduled as close to nighttime as possible.
Exposure to light decreases melatonin production, which is the hormone that makes people feel sleepy. To help workers stay awake during their shifts, employers can install bright lighting in the workplace. To help workers go to bed after their shift, they can avoid blue light two hours prior to sleep time. This can be done by avoiding screens or wearing special glasses that block blue light.
Previous research shows that night shift workers are more likely to skip meals, consume more sugar and saturated fat, and consume less protein and vegetables. All of these factors are associated with obesity and high blood sugar and cholesterol. To prevent this, researchers suggest eating three meals a day at regular time intervals, with the majority of calories consumed in the morning rather than before bed. Moreover, it is important to focus meals around protein and vegetables.
The results of this study suggest that working night shift is associated with an increased risk of sleep disorders and metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome, in particular, is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. More research is needed to determine a stronger correlation.
Written by Avery Bisbee
Kulkarni, K., Schow, M., & Shubrook, J. H. (2020). Shift Workers at Risk for Metabolic Syndrome. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 120, 107–117. doi: 10.7556/jaoa.2020.020
Metabolic syndrome. (2019, March 14). Retrieved February 3, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/metabolic-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20351916
Shift workers at risk for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. (2020, February 3). Retrieved February 3, 2020, from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-02/aoa-swa013120.php
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