According to the bureau of Labor Statistics, 15 million people work evening shift, night shift, rotating shifts or other schedules outside the traditional 9 am to 5 pm work day. These non-traditional hours are called shift work.
Some shift workers include nurses, doctors, firefighters, police officers, flight attendants, pilots, waitresses, and truck drivers.
Shift work had been linked to various health conditions.
Health effects of shift work
Cardiovascular disease: Shift work increases cardiovascular disease on average 40%. The longer you perform shift work, the greater your risk.
Diabetes: According to a 2014 meta-analysis published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, shift work is associated with increased diabetes risk. Risk is significantly increased for men and those who work rotating shifts.
Depression: Shift workers tend to have lower serotonin levels. Serotonin is a central nervous system hormone and neurotransmitter. Low serotonin levels are connected to sleep issues, anger, depression, and anxiety.
Cancer: In 2007 the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared the circadian rhythm disruption linked to shift work as probably carcinogenic. A study published in 2013 found women who work night shift for 30 or more years to be at higher breast cancer risk.
Evidence suggests shift work may impact metabolic balance and obesity. A 5-year follow-up study found shift workers with one or two risk factors for metabolic syndrome initially were 4.6 and 12.7 times more likely to develop metabolic syndrome.
Conditions connected to shift work range from upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, peptic ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome. A cohort study found night-shift workers to have twice the risk for developing a peptic ulcer compared to daytime workers.
A study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine found shift workers scored lower on memory tests, processing speed, and overall brain power. Researchers found the level of cognitive decline seen in shift works to be equivalent to a 6.5-year age-related decline. (On a positive note, cognitive abilities returned to normal when shift work was stopped for 5 years.)
Infertility and Pregnancy Complications:
Shift work has been connected to increased miscarriages, complications during delivery, premature births, low-birth weight infants, infertility, endometriosis, and irregular menstruation. (Numinen T. Shift work and reproductive health. Scand J Work Environ Health 1998;24 Suppl 3:28-34)
Steps You Can Take to Counteract the Risks
There are likely many reasons you work shifts….
necessary as you climb your career ladder
needed income for financial reasons
better management of childcare
simply a part of your chosen field
Whatever your reason, stopping is likely not going to be realistic. Shift work is just one of many risk factors for these various diseases. If you take some basic steps to promote good health you will be able to maintain fairly low risk while doing shift work.
Get adequate sleep
Be aware of the impact light has on sleep quality. Limit your exposure to daylight as you come off a night shift. Consider driving home in sunglasses to reduce morning light exposure and wear a sleep mask to block light when sleeping.
Maintain a stable schedule
If possible, work consistent hours versus a rotating schedule.
Eat a healthy diet, exercise, and maintain a healthy weight
Maintaining a healthy weight, a well-balanced diet, and exercising regularly will reduce your risk for many of the conditions linked to shift work.
Consult your doctor
If you’ve noticed changes in your health or have concerns about the impact of shift work on your health, contact your doctor.
If you are working to implement positive changes, but struggle maintaining the healthy habits long term access How to Make Heart Healthy Changes into Lifelong Habits here.
All the best,
Lisa Nelson RD
Health Pro for HealthCentral
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