Understanding the health dangers of working the night shift

October 2, 2015

Working the night shift can be dangerous to your health because it promotes irregular sleeping habits and unhealthy eating. Here are some of the health risks associated with working the night shift and some healthy tips for reversing the negative consequences.

Understanding the health dangers of working the night shift

The health risks of working a night or swing shift

If you've ever spent a year or more on the night shift or a swing shift, you may be at higher risk for cancers of the breast and colon as well as cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, and sleep disorders.

  • Experts say that the night shift's health damage rivals the problems caused by smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
  • The culprits? Stress and altered melatonin levels.
  • Normally, melatonin levels reach their peak during sleep. But if you're exposed to light at night, levels decline sharply.
  • The cancer connection: This sleep hormone also seems to inhibit the growth of tumours. At low levels, researchers suspect, it may not be able to do its job.
  • Surprisingly, a swing shift schedule may throw off things even more than a steady night job. In a study of 45 oil rig workers, researchers found that guys whose work schedules changed every few days had lower, more erratic melatonin levels and higher levels of heart-threatening fatty acids in their bloodstreams than men assigned to steady night work. "Swing shift is a killer," one researcher noted.
  • And then there are the unhealthy habits that are linked to night-shift work. Because few restaurants are open in the middle of the night, eating habits tend toward fast food and vending machines. And because of the nighttime hours, late-night workers often skip on exercise.

Can you undo the damage?

Yes. Altered melatonin levels seem to return to normal once nighttime or shift work ends.

  • But the added cancer risk may not go away. Be sure to get all the cancer screenings you need.

The benefits of sleeping and regular health screenings

Being diligent about getting your sleep and taking care of yourself will give you more energy and less chance of gaining weight while you're working nights.

  • Getting health screenings means you and your doctor will catch problems early, when they're most treatable.

Repair Plan

  1. Establish a consistent sleep routine. Your body chemistry will adjust some to your nighttime work if you keep a regular schedule that includes plenty of rest. Go to bed soon after you return home, instead of trying to fit in errands and household chores. You can do them when you wake up.
  2. Carry healthy drinks and lots of fruit or vegetable snacks. Having something healthy to crunch on or sip can help you avoid two of the biggest dangers of shift work: Drinking extra caffeine (as noted, it'll keep you awake when you finally have time to sleep!) and smoking cigarettes.
  3. Take an exercise break. Walk around the building, use the company gym, or do sit-ups in the break room. You'll burn calories and feel more alert.
  4. Bring your own healthy meals to work. Eating healthy foods has no shortage of benefits, and one of them includes better sleep. A diet of sugar, caffeine, and fat — which is what you get from fast food and vending machines — not only hurts your health but also disrupts your natural energy/rest cycles.
  5. Don't skip screenings. Get mammograms, colonoscopies, blood pressure checks, and cholesterol tests as recommended by your doctor, even if you no longer work odd hours.

Sometimes working the night shift is unavoidable but there are some ways you can limit the negative consequences of late-night working. Keep these tips in mind and keep to a schedule that will keep you healthy.

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