New Studies Show Negative Health Effects of Shift Work

Doctors and researchers have for years worked to uncover the mysterious relationship between sleep cycles and an individual’s overall health. It seems intuitive. The less you sleep; the worse you feel. Yet, as recent studies have begun to show, the consequences of erratic sleep schedules may be greater than you think.

According to a recent report published in Scientific American [], it is not just a lack of sleep but also the timing of one’s sleep which can translate into adverse health effects. Naturally, the human body relies on a schedule of sleep and wakefulness which corresponds to day and night. When this circadian rhythm is interrupted or inverted, as is often the case with shift workers, an individual can experience changes in appetite, mood, cognitive abilities and more.

For many health care professionals, abrupt changes in sleep patterns are a part of life. Many, including nurses, physicians and EMTs, may be required to work graveyard shifts one week and daytime shifts the following week. A series of studies published over the past few years in the journal Occupational and Environmental Health have shown a link between this type of erratic or inverted schedule and an increased risk of Type II diabetes, weight problems, cognitive impairment, cardiovascular disease and, startlingly, all-type mortality. In particular, a November 2014 study concluded that shift workers demonstrated deterioration in memory, processing speed and overall cognitive abilities.

Many researchers point to changes in metabolic and hormonal function as the root cause of shift work’s side effects. Other, earlier studies suggest that circadian disruption can affect tumor-suppressing proteins, lipid concentrations and the secretion of melatonin. Researchers stress that sleep-related research is, in many ways, still in its infancy; however, the relationship between good sleep and good health is by no means speculative.

If you are a shift worker concerned about your health, the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center offers the following advice:

  • If you must rotate shifts, do so in a clockwise pattern. Shifting from day shifts, to evening, to night is far better than day, to morning, to night.
  • Take naps just before your shift to improve wakefulness.
  • Eat well and avoid lots of snacks and fast food.
  • Try to maintain the same schedule every day of the week.