Does Shift Work Impact Your Health?

Despite daytime working hours being considered the norm, there are millions of Americans who perform their jobs through shift work.

This work often takes place at night.

Those who take these shifts find themselves keeping to an unusual or irregular schedule, sleeping during the day and working at odd hours.

This can have a huge impact on their health.

Many of the health issues related to shift work are a result of the disruption of natural sleep patterns, which the body relies on to function correctly.

If you work night shifts or alternating shifts for long periods of time, then you could be putting yourself at risk for several health conditions and diseases.

While these shift jobs can pay well or allow you to have a more flexible schedule, they may not be worth the danger to your long-term health.

Circadian Rhythms and Sleep Quality

Circadian rhythms are sometimes referred to as the body’s internal clock, and they are responsible for many of the body’s natural functions and processes.

As well as controlling your waking and sleeping schedule, they regulate hormones and temperature. If these cycles are disrupted, then the functions they control can be disrupted as well.

This can occur as your body struggles to adjust to working at night and sleeping during the day. The problem can be even worse if you change shifts frequently, as you may not be able to adjust at all.

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Sleep quality is a secondary factor to consider. Many of your body’s functions rely on your sleep quality and can be affected badly when your sleep is poor.

Even if you have a regular shift schedule, you may find the quality of your sleep is lacking when you try to sleep during the day.

Diseases and Disorders

The lack of sleep and disruption of circadian rhythms resulting from shift work, combined with the impact it can have on your lifestyle, may put you at risk for several health issues.

Many of these issues may only become a risk over several years of shift work, but others could affect you after only a short time. Short and long-term health problems can include:

  • Cardiovascular disease and strokes, resulting from the effect shift work can have on your blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Diabetes, a decreased insulin resistance, which may result from poor sleep quality. Those working shift jobs are often found to have high blood sugar levels.
  • Cognitive function, which may be negatively affected by poor sleep and changing schedules. This can affect your memory and several other faculties.
  • Considerable increase in cancer risks for those who perform shift work over the course of many years.
  • Various gastrointestinal disorders such as ulcers, constipation, heartburn and IBS could result from shift work.
  • Negative effects on women’s reproductive cycles, including menstruation and pregnancy issues. Women working overnight shifts should look into preventative health care measures.
  • Obesity, which results from the increased appetite shift workers can experience. This is the result of hormonal changes occurring when your sleep is disrupted or of low quality.

Lifestyle Changes

There are a few ways in which your lifestyle habits can be altered as a result of shift work, to the detriment of your health.

For example, your personal relationships could struggle as your schedule is unlikely to match up with those of your family and friends. This can contribute to mental health issues such as depression.

Unhealthy eating habits may become more convenient, as junk food is often available at all hours.

Exercise habits may be more difficult to maintain with an irregular or night-based schedule.

Alcohol may become part of your daily routine, as many people mistakenly think alcohol can help them sleep better. These problems can increase the negative impact shift work can have on your health and must be carefully monitored.

Health and Safety

The exhaustion that can result from a constantly changing sleep cycle and poor sleep quality could mean you are in physical danger at work.

This is especially the case for those who work in dangerous and physically demanding environments.

You may be more prone to making mistakes, less aware of your surroundings and slower to respond in emergencies. You could be at increased risk while traveling home.

It is important to stay aware of your energy levels at work and ensure there are measures to determine whether it is safe for you or your co-workers to perform a certain task.

You may need to take naps on your breaks or drink caffeine, provided this is not too close to the end of the shift. Exercise could be a better way to stay awake.

Lessening the Impact

For many people, shift work is non-optional, despite the risks it could bring to their health. While it is probably better for you in the long term to seek out a more traditional schedule, there are steps you can take to minimize the impact shift work has on your health.

These include the following:

  • Keep a steady schedule if you can, even if this means only ever working nights. The difficulty in trying to adjust between day and night shift work can cause even more problems for your health. On your days off, keep to your usual sleep schedule.
  • Wear dark glasses when you finish a shift after sunrise. This can help to prevent you from entering a more wakeful state before you get home.
  • Protect your sleep as much as possible. Make sure your family knows not to disturb you, use blackout curtains, set up soundproofing, and take any other measures needed to ensure you rest for a full eight hours. Remember to set your phone to silent.
  • Develop a bedtime ritual to help you get in the right mindset for sleep. This can be composed of activities you find relaxing, such as taking a shower or reading a book.
  • Exercise only after you wake up, as this energizes you and prevents you from sleeping. You might find it is better to exercise during a break at work.
  • Sleeping aids may help you in the short term, but you must consult your doctor before taking any.

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