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Shift Work & Health: What You Need to Know

Approximately 25 million Americans fall into the category of ‘shift workers,’ and many of them are essential to our daily lives and overall wellness. While shift work can have some benefits, there are also some detrimental effects to this type of schedule. Let’s look at what the impacts of shift work can be and what you can do about it.

What Exactly is Shift Work?

Shift work essentially refers to any work schedule that falls outside of the typical 7 am to 6 pm hours. Shift work can include evening shifts, overnight shifts, and early morning shifts and can be regular or rotating. Shift workers can include servers or bartenders, musicians, firefighters, truck drivers, farmers, first responders, as well as doctors, nurses, and hospital staff. There are many people who enjoy shift work due to the easier commutes and the potential for better wages. And night owls prefer often prefer a schedule that works around their tendencies. But there can also be some significant issues associated with shift work.

So, What are the Problems Associated with Shift Work?

Our circadian rhythm is guided by sunlight. When we see sunlight in the mornings, it cues our brain to release stimulating hormones. Once the sun sets, we get cued to release melatonin, which helps us adjust into our sleepy mode at night. Shift workers don’t get this typical response to sunlight and darkness and there are several issues that can occur as a result:

  • * Sleep: It’s probably obvious that one of the areas most impacted by shift work is sleep. Shift workers often struggle with issues such as insomnia, excessive sleepiness, and associated concentration issues.
  • * Hormones: As a result of poor or insufficient sleep, shift workers often experience hormonal disruptions like elevated cortisol levels and reduced testosterone levels. This can impact their energy levels, fat storage, and even their libido.
  • * Mood: Again the impact of insufficient sleep can cause shift workers to be irritable, short-tempered, and have significant difficulties coping with conflict and with general problem-solving. This can lead to symptoms of depression and often substance abuse issues.
  • * Eating Patterns: The hormonal disruptions associated with shift work can cause increased appetite, elevated insulin levels, and increased carbohydrate and sugar cravings as well as increasing risk of obesity.
  • * Other Health Issues: Shift workers are at increased risk of diseases such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Shift work can also exacerbate symptoms of underlying health conditions such as reproductive health issues or gastrointestinal health problems.
  • So, What Can You Do About It?
  • Fortunately, there are ways to combat some of the detrimental effects of shift work. Here are some of the steps you can take:
  • Set a Sleep Schedule
  • Sleep consistency is the key to health and wellness for most shift workers. That means sleeping the same every night (or day!). Whatever your sleep schedule is for work days, try to keep it the same for non-work days. Your body likes rhythm and routine, so the more consistent you can be, the happier your body will be.
  • Create an Optimal Sleep Environment
  • Your body likes to sleep in dark, cool, and quiet. You can achieve this even if you are sleeping during the day. Draw your shades and use an eye mask to create darkness. Use earplugs or a white noise machine to block out outside sounds. And use air-conditioning or fans to keep your sleep environment nice and cool.
  • Limit Pre-Sleep Beverages
  • Alcohol and Caffeine can both impact your sleep quality. While alcohol can have sedative effects (which you think might help with sleep), it can actually cause sleep disturbances while your body breaks down the alcohol. Limit pre-sleep alcohol to just one glass if possible and try stopping caffeine a minimum of 5 hours before bedtime.
  • Use Naps Effectively
  • Naps can be wonderful and can be the key to getting by when doing shift work. Power naps, or naps under 30 minutes can be invaluable as they can help you recharge without cause the excessive grogginess that comes from longer naps. You can also try a “caffeine” nap, where you have a cup of coffee right before your nap. This will coordinate your wake up time with the time the caffeine kicks in!
  • Consider Light Therapy
  • Light is the key to your internal clock and your circadian rhythm. And light exposure can be limited for shift workers. So using a light box can help balance some of the impacts of reduced light exposure. Sit by a light box shortly after waking up each day to help reset your internal clock to mesh with your work schedule.
  • Shift work can have both positive and negative impacts. Fortunately there are some strategies you can use to help mitigate the negative side of things. Try implementing these techniques to re-adjust your internal clock, start sleeping better, and make yourself healthier overall!

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Dr. Candice Seti


California-licensed Clinical Psychologist, Certified Nutrition Coach, and Certified Personal Trainer

Dr. Candice Seti

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