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Shift Work Affecting Health

Shift Work Affecting Health

In the U.S., around 8.6 million people work shifts, whether they work nights or alternate shifts during the week. For many, it is a rite of passage in their career; for others, it is a financial necessity. However, there is a growing feeling that shift work can seriously affect their health.

“There is robust evidence that shift work is associated with several serious health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity,” says Frank Scheer, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “These differences cannot be explained by lifestyle or socioeconomic status alone.”

Stomach problems, ulcers, and increased risk of accidents and injuries are also related to shifting work.

Many faces of shift workers

Rendering to the National Sleep Foundation, a shift employee is not just someone who works at night but anyone who works outside a fixed 9:5 schedule. The millions of change workers in the U.S. include forces officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors, pilots, waitpersons, truck drivers, and many other professionals. Even a personal trainer who works out in the gym with clients early in the morning and evening is on shift.

As shift work has developed more widely in the U.S., health risks have become a focus of interest for researchers and businesses that employ shift workers. How serious are these dangers – and can they be reduced? Unfortunately, we don’t have the answers altogether yet.

How does shift work affect us?How does shift work affect us?

Experts say shift work can seriously affect our health in at least two ways. Some of this may concern the lifestyle that shift work inspires. The rest has to do with our biology.

Working odd times leads to some obvious problems when it comes to lifestyle. People who work shifts tend to have sleep disorders and sleep loss. They may feel isolated because their work has cut them off from their friends and families. Scheer says it may be harder for them to exercise regularly, and they may be more inclined to eat junk food from the convenience store.

Shift work disrupts the circadian rhythm – our internal body clock, which is the key to natural daylight and darkness. However, Scheer and other experts believe that a significant part of the problem with shift work is physiological. Being awake at odd or uneven hours fights our biological rhythms on a fundamental level.

Because the circadian rhythm affects how the body functions, disruption can throw everything off course—including our cardiovascular system, metabolism, digestion, immune system, and hormonal balance- which seems to have serious consequences.

Short-term health effects of shift work

The short-term health belongings of shift work are apparent. Even if you don’t work shifts, you’ve probably experienced the equivalent effects—perhaps after a transatlantic flight, an all-nighter in college, or nights with a wailing newborn. Besides the apparent fatigue, the products include: Gastrointestinal indications such as upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and heartburn

Increased risk of injuries and accidents


Reduced quality of life

The general feeling of nausea

Long-term health belongings of shift work

The long-term effects of change work are harder to measure. However, researchers have discovered compelling links between shift workers and an increased risk of severe health conditions and diseases.

Cardiovascular disease.

For decades, researchers have observed a link between shift work and the risk of heart attack and heart disease. The risks seem to increase the longer one works at night. One review of research found that shift work appears to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by 40%.

One analysis created that the risk of stroke increased by 5% every five years a person worked shift work. However, the risk of stroke only increased after a person had worked shifts for 15 years.

Diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Numerous studies have found that shift work appears to be a risk factor for developing diabetes. For example, one Japanese study found that shift workers—specifically, those who worked 16-hour shifts—had a 50% higher incidence of diabetes than day workers.

Metabolic syndrome.

A combination of health problems, such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, obesity, and unhealthy cholesterol, is also linked to shifting work. For example, one 2007 study followed more than 700 healthy doctors over four years. The incidence of metabolic syndrome remained more than three times higher in those who worked night shifts. It is a severe risk factor for diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes.


There are several possible reasons for the association between obesity and shift work. Poor diet and lack of exercise may be part of the problem. Hormonal balance also seems to be necessary. The hormone leptin plays a crucial role in regulating our appetite; it helps us feel fulfilled. Because shift work appears to lower leptin levels, night workers are hungrier—and thus eat more—than day workers.

Depression and mood disorders.

Some studies have originated that shift workers remain more likely to suffer from symptoms of unhappiness and other mood disorders. The social isolation of shift work certainly takes a psychological toll. Shift work can also directly affect brain chemistry. One 2007 study found those night workers had significantly lower serotonin levels, a brain chemical that plays a key role in mood, compared to day workers.

Severe gastrointestinal distress.

For more than 50 years, scientists have noticed that shift work seems to increase the risk of peptic ulcers. It also appears to increase the risk of general GI symptoms (such as nausea, diarrhea, and constipation) and possibly some types of functional bowel disease (such as irritable bowel syndrome). In addition, one 2008 study found evidence linking shift work to chronic heartburn or GERD. Shift Work Affecting Health

Fertility and pregnancy problems.

Research has shown that shift work can touch a woman’s reproductive system. For example, one study focused on flight attendants who typically work shifts. The results showed that flight entourages who worked while pregnant were twice as likely to have a miscarriage as flight attendants who did not.

Shift work also appears to be associated with an increased risk of complications during childbirth, premature and low birth weight babies, fertility problems, endometriosis, irregular periods, and painful periods.


There is strong evidence – from both human and animal studies – that shift work increases cancer risk. In 2007, a subcommittee of the World Health Organization went so far as to declare that shift work is “probably carcinogenic.” Shift Work Affecting Health


Two analyzes of data from different studies found that night work increases the risk of breast cancer by 50%. As pilots and flight attendants do, working shifts on airplanes increase the risk by 70%. There is evidence that shift work may also increase the risk of colorectal cancer and prostate cancer. But, so far, the evidence suggests that cancer risk rises only after many years of shift work – perhaps as much as 20 years. Shift Work Affecting Health

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