The Health Risks of Shift Work
Shift Work: Understanding Your Risks
Some of the serious risks associated with shift work seem to develop gradually over decades, but others develop more quickly.
Scheer led a small laboratory experiment to test the effects of disrupting the circadian rhythm. To simulate the effects of shift work, Scheer had 10 healthy adults adopt a constantly changing schedule of eating and sleeping. After just 10 days, he found that they all had lower leptin levels (which would increase appetite), higher blood pressure, and worse sleep.
Most disturbing, three of the adults showed higher than normal blood sugar levels -- high enough to qualify as prediabetic.
"The changes were very rapid," says Scheer. "It didn't take years for disruption to the circadian rhythm to have medical effects."
Scheer cautions that the implications of the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009, are limited. A small laboratory experiment can't fully reflect what's happening to actual shift workers. It's also possible that some of these health effects might improve as people get used to shift work. On the other hand, it's also possible that these effects would just worsen over time. For now, we don't know.
Shift Work Risks: What You Can Do
The apparent risks of shift work might seem alarming. What are you supposed to do if you work nights -- or if you have a child in nursing school or training to be a firefighter? How concerned should you be?
It's important to keep the risks in perspective. Even if performing shift work is a risk factor for some diseases, it's only one of many -- just like not getting enough sleep or eating too many sweets. If you're in good health to begin with, the overall risks to any given person performing shift work remain low.
If you work shifts, there are some things you can do.
Eat well and exercise. Since many of the risks of shift work are tied to obesity and metabolic syndrome, step up your efforts to prevent them. Exercising regularly, eating well, and keeping a healthy weight could make a difference.
Get enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation has its own health risks, and studies suggest that shift workers sleep less effectively than day workers. Part of the problem is that even brief exposure to light during the day naturally wakes up your body, making it hard to sleep.
Scheer recommends that shift workers make an extra effort to practice good sleep hygiene when they're getting ready for bed. Make sure to block out the light in your bedroom with room darkening shades or with a sleep mask. Some people drive home from a night shift wearing sunglasses to reduce their exposure to morning light.
Change your schedule. While moving to daytime shift might not be possible, making changes to how you work at night could help, too. For instance, some experts think that working stable rather than rotating shifts might be healthier.
Many industries are also experimenting with different approaches to shift work -- like shorter shifts and scheduled nap times.
See your doctor. Your doctor might suggest medicine either to help you stay awake during shifts or to help you sleep when you get into bed. Also, if you're concerned about the health effects of shift work, your doctor should monitor your health more closely. That's especially true if you already have any health problems.
"People who perform shift work need closer monitoring," Scheer tells WebMD. "That way their doctors can tell them if they're not coping well medically."
If your health is obviously suffering -- if you're gaining weight and your blood sugar is rising -- it could be an obvious sign that you need to consider a new line of work. If your doctor doesn't see any problems, you could perform your shift work with more confidence.