Professionals have widely documented connections between various health risks and the things people’s bodies go through as individuals work the night shift. Night shifts are certainly not a walk in the park. The conditions night shift workers brave on a nightly basis are the main reasons why employers pay a premium for job hunters willing to work irregular shifts.
Fortunately, night shift jobs themselves are not innately bad for your health. Experts discovered that, through a fundamental adjustment to eating habits and lifestyle, the impacts and risks that the nightly circumstances have on a person’s body could be minimized if not totally remedied.
Risks of Working the Night Shift
Working on the night shift will undoubtedly have its fair share of risks. That’s why despite high-paying offers and premium benefits, night shift workers are always in demand. Unfortunately, adjusting to the life of a night shift work is far from easy. Without proper research, preparation, and commitment, aspiring night shift employees may quickly fall into unhealthy eating and sleeping habits that can be detrimental to their physical, mental, and emotional health.
Some of the health risks that medical professionals often find to be connected with night shift workers include the following:
- Disruption of Sleeping Rhythms – Human beings are animals who thrive in activity during the day and rest to recover during the night. A body function called the circadian rhythm helps the body recover as you sleep. However, once night shift workers start staying up through the night as they work, the body starts becoming confused, and the circadian rhythm is disrupted.
- Increased Risk of Unfavorable Medical Conditions – Thorough research found that working night shifts may increase the risk of several unfavorable medical conditions when night shift workers take their health for granted. These medical conditions range from obesity, diabetes, heart attack, metabolic problems, and gastrointestinal complications.
- Mental Health Concerns – Studies show that suddenly working night shifts without preparation or research lead to an increased risk of mental health concerns as well. In the last decade, epidemiological research found that shift workers experience anxiety and irritability. These are consequences of stressful working conditions.
- Physical Injury Due to Sleeplessness and Lack of Alertness – The National Sleep Foundation published their findings on Shift Work Disorder on their website, revealing that the condition can reduce people’s alertness. This inability to stay awake – caused by sleeplessness – can be an impediment to staying productive as employees work and result in accidents. From car accidents to the inability to pay attention to things happening in their surrounding, discombobulation caused by lack of sleep is not healthy for any night shift worker’s health.
Fortunately, experts have developed and discovered many ways to help the body adjust to such a drastic lifestyle change as moving to the night shift. In fact, experts from the National Sleep Foundation and studies published in medical journals have recommended various ways to counteract the supposed adverse effects that working the night shift brings.
This article will walk you through the many risks night shift workers face on a nightly basis, the preparatory measures you can take to prepare for the lifestyle the night shift demands, and healthy tips to keep the body strong, functional, and most importantly, physically and mentally fit.
The Suprachiasmatic Nucleus and the Circadian Rhythms
The most immediate and most significant change a person working the night shift experiences is the impact on sleep schedules. Humans, physiologically, naturally move and work during the day and sleep and recover at night. This internal clock functions in sync with a person’s circadian rhythms. Professionals study the effects of night shift work on the human body intensively as it impacts a person’s circadian rhythms, possibly increasing the risk for a variety of health conditions ranging from heart problems to metabolic issues.
The lifestyle change night shift workers go through affects the body on a biological level. Changing your sleep cycle without preparation can cause discord in many body processes and functions. The suprachiasmatic nucleus, located in the hypothalamus, drives the circadian rhythms and responds to the light-dark cycle of the environment. This complex timekeeping organ’s activity and condition affect a person’s core body temperature, memory, and psychomotor complex.
What makes the night shift so grueling is the person’s need to alter their psychophysiological state. As diurnal organisms, people need to sleep during the night and awaken during the day. Since night shift workers act directly inverse of what the body considers normal, they experience erratic bodily functions.
The misalignment of a person’s activity and their circadian rhythms may struggle through pangs of drowsiness or daze, fatigue, insomnia, digestive disorders, poorer mental function, temper concerns, and reduced efficiency.
Health Risks Associated with Night Shifts
From the NSF to the British Medical Journal, experts from various fields have studied and found connections between certain health risks and working night shifts. In 2016, a study that experts conducted on 80,825 participants revealed that women who work rotating night shifts are 15 to 18 percent more at risk of getting coronary heart disease.
A different study published in the National Library of Medicine also reveals that shift work and long work hours result in reduced efficiency at work, obesity, injuries, and several chronic diseases.
Heart Attacks, Coronary Heart Disease, and Other Heart Conditions
According to Science Daily, heart diseases are the leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, data suggests that heart diseases have a connection to one in every four deaths that happen in the country.
Working the night shift without a conscious effort to maintain a healthy lifestyle affects the cardiovascular system massively. Several studies suggest that there is an undeniable connection between night shift work and the risks of cardiovascular disorders.
In fact, an article in News Medical states that shift workers have a 40% increased chance of having ischemic heart disease. It also states that shift workers have been more likely to participate or take part in unhealthy experiences, such as smoking, becoming obese, and having increased levels of cholesterol.
Additionally, a separate study that experts published in the British Medical Journal also revealed that working night shifts can increase the likelihood of a heart attack by 7%. While it was not clear why the risk was greater for night shift workers, researchers believe and theorize that the sudden change in sleep hygiene affects blood pressure and circulation.
Experts from the NSF also note that heart rates and blood pressure increase due to the stress of adapting to a night schedule. Healthcare professionals recommend researching and adopting an active and healthy lifestyle to reduce the greater risks of cardiovascular disorders. Exercising, taking on a well-balanced diet, and finding ways to relax and rest to improve sleep quality are some of the recommendations experts advise night shift workers.
Digestive and Gastrointestinal Problems
Nutritionists and healthcare professionals share that what you need to eat during the night shift isn’t very different from what you should be eating on a normal day. The bigger difference actually lies in the frequency, schedules, and frequency of a diet. It’s also worth noting that sleep deprivation affects food choice, so night shift workers who lack sleep may fall victim to their unhealthy cravings.
Overnight shift workers experience a variety of digestive problems more than day workers do. In one of their online articles, News Medical cited a study that between 20% and 75% of overnight shift workers versus 10 to 25% of day workers experience some form of digestive concern. According to the online news portal, experts associate these digestive concerns with mealtime mismatches and gastrointestinal problems that circadian rhythms regulate.
The circadian rhythm – which was discussed earlier – is in charge of helping create gastric acids, bile, and pancreatic fluids. The movement of intestines, enzyme activity, rate of feed absorption in intestines, and the release of hormones that create the feeling of hunger also rely on the processes of the circadian rhythm.
The night shift environment also entails a shortage of food options as most establishments are unavailable during the night. Because of this, night shift workers often fall prey to unhealthy food such as greasy fast food products, vending machine snacks, and convenience store cuisine. Medical professionals also noted that food with higher preservative content, like pre-packed and processed food, can be hazardous to any person’s health.
Diabetes, Obesity, and Other Metabolic Disorders
Various studies show that there is a greater prevalence of metabolic disturbances in employees who work at night and other irregular shifts. Metabolic disturbances can range from conditions like obesity, elevated levels of triglycerides, reduced HDL cholesterol, increased fasting glucose, and high blood pressure. Collectively, however, these conditions comprise metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic disturbances and metabolic syndromes are telltale signs and important risk factors for cardiovascular diseases and possibly the development of type two diabetes. Experts report that the misalignment of the body’s activity and circadian rhythm causes these risk factors. Other causes may be poor quality and inconsistent sleep hygiene, digestive disorders, and sudden shifts in lifestyle habits related to eating habits and snacking.
These unhealthy conditions cause heavily influence the performance of the liver and the kidney. They also affect important hormones the body needs and impact the body’s ability to regulate weight, blood sugar, and insulin levels. Working night shifts obstructs the production and regulation of several different hormones that keep the body healthy, possibly leading to various disorders.
What’s most concerning about hormone imbalance is the danger of still developing obesity and diabetes despite a conscious effort to implement a healthy diet. According to Medical News Today, night shift workers are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome and 23% more susceptible to obesity. This risk, according to experts, is a result of poor diet and the disruption of the body clock.
Insomnia, Depression, and Mental Health
The irregular scheduling of night shift work, without proper preparation, can cause mental health concerns like insomnia and depression. According to several studies, workers who work the night shift become more susceptible to pangs of irritation, worse temper, depression, and various mood disorders.
Due to the stress the body goes through as it adapts to new schedules and environments, workers experience episodes of anxiety and bad temper. Experts also attribute many mental health concerns that happen to night shift workers to the misalignment of the employees and their circadian rhythms.
Other psychological and mental concerns that arise from night shift work include chronic fatigue and neuroticism. According to News Medical, data show there are higher cases of absenteeism in night shift workers. Some night shift workers’ conditions have even deteriorated to the point of needing treatment that involves psychotropic drugs and sedatives.
The NCBI, through a study, noted that the effects of night shift work and sleep deprivation on mental alertness are similar to the impact of ethanol intoxication. To ensure a healthy mental capacity, stay hydrated, establish a well-balanced diet, and maintain prudent sleeping hygiene.
Also, consider implementing self-care practices. Such practices can be in the form of meditation, journaling, and other relaxing exercises. These activities will give you time to reflect on yourself, find out what you need, and take care of yourself.
Staying Healthy During the Night Shift
Now that you know the risks, it’s important to reflect on your lifestyle and implement the adjustments you need to stay healthy. There are a variety of safety measures you can integrate into your life. However, adopting a new lifestyle can still take some getting used to, so make sure you transition slowly but surely. Here are a few recommendations experts shared to help you cope with the speeds of the night shift:
Maintain healthy sleep hygiene – Healthy sleep hygiene can help you easily alleviate many of the risks that come with working night shifts.
Establish a well-balanced diet – Many of the concerns that night shift workers have concerning their health have a connection to when, how, and what they eat.
Plan ahead – Preparation is always key. With a little research, you will find optimal ways to plan your diet and the best environment to rest and sleep.
These are just some of the ways to ensure you stay healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally as you transition to your new lifestyle as a night shift worker. The night shift undoubtedly has its share of pros and cons, but if you make a conscious effort to make your health the priority, you may enjoy all the benefits with little concern for the cons.