Does night shift work impact your health?

Thank you to one of my readers who recently posed this question:

Does working graveyard shifts affect your sleep patterns and eventually your overall health? 

I would have to say that yes, it does. Several studies have demonstrated a negative association with working at night and poor sleep habits.

Humans have evolved into a day=work, night=rest schedule. This is referred to as our circadian rhythm. We have our most restful sleep between about 9 pm and 9 am. The amount of sleep required varies from one individual to the next, but most of us need about seven or eight hours each night.

Working nights is challenging; for many people, it is difficul to initiate sleep during the day. This can cause excessive sleepiness during your working (night) hours. Sleepiness on the job is associated with reduced production, increased accidents and a negative impact on your quality of life.

What does the research say?

In the journal Occupational Medicine, authors Wang et al. reviewed existing literature and concluded that shift work seemed to increase a person’s risk of stroke, weight gain, high blood pressure and diabetes but not enough to be statistically significant.

In the journal Chronobiology International, the authors Weibel et al. report an incomplete adjustment of growth hormone (GH) rhythms in night workers. This means that secretion of at least three key hormones (cortisol, thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and GH) isn’t entirely normal if you sleep during the day.

Potential health impact of working the graveyard shift

If you work at night, sleep during the day and suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness, you may be suffering from shift work disorder (SWD). I would suggest a referral to a sleep specialist to get tested. There are therapies available such as timing of bright light, exercise and medications including melatonin (read my post on melatonin). 

I realize that for many of us, night shift isn’t something that we can walk away from. In fact, a significant part of the workforce (16 percent) works either at night or at early morning shifts. Many of these people work in essential services, such as nurses, officers, 911 receptionists and doctors. In my personal experience when working nights at the hospital, I experienced the same challenges. Interestingly, I also found it easier to make poor food choices during those night shifts, which likley increased my inability to sleep well!

My hope is that by reading this blog you are more aware of the potential health risks associated with working at night (or even just maintaining a night-owl schedule!). If possible, take steps to reduce the amount of time you spend working the graveyard shift, or mitigate the impact by introducing other healthy habits such as exercise and light therapy to your daily routine.



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