How Night Shifts Affect Your Body: What You Can Do to Stay Healthy

Night shifts ask our bodies to work against the natural sleep cycles we are used to. This can put a strain on our health, impacting long-term well-being.

Key takeaways:
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    Night shift work can have a prolonged effect on your health and well-being.
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    Keeping a regular schedule while working night shifts can help mitigate risk factors.
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    Maintaining a healthy diet and low to no alcohol consumption can help keep your brain and heart health while working night shifts.

Some industries are more affected than others. Night shift workers comprise around twenty percent of the global shift workforce. You are more likely to be asked to work night shifts in sectors such as:

  • Healthcare
  • Emergency Response
  • Industrial Operations
  • Care Work
  • Road Transport Driving

How do night shifts affect the body?

issues such as diabetes and obesity. A typical daily cycle (circadian rhythm) goes through stages of wakefulness during daylight hours and sleep during the night.

A healthy circadian rhythm promotes the release of certain hormones which influence metabolism. When that rhythm is interrupted or frequently inverted, the body's metabolizing ability is significantly altered. Without proper management, these issues can lead to metabolic disorders, elevated levels of triglycerides, reduced HDL cholesterol, increased fasting glucose, and high blood pressure.

What do night shifts do to the brain?

Night shift work has also been shown to raise the risks of mental health issues such as nervousness, irritability, and anxiety as consequences of stressful working conditions.

Loss of quality sleep has been attributed to the prevalence of these ailments. The brain and body rest and recharge while we sleep. If we are not getting quality rejuvenation time, our brains don't get the chance to repair and process our experiences properly.

Research has shown that disrupted sleep cycles can lead to impaired brain function, decreased reaction time, impaired memory and emotional control, early cognitive decline, and Alzheimer's.

Why are our bodies and brains so affected by night shifts?

If our internal body clocks are correctly synchronized, they coordinate all our biological processes to happen at the correct time of day or night. Shift work, especially rotating shift work, is confusing to our internal body clocks. When a circadian rhythm gets completely disturbed, it can lead to various health disorders.

Irregular sleep and waking cycles stop the correct control mechanisms from functioning correctly. When our body clocks are misaligned, whether through shift work or other disruptions, that provides for changes in physiology, biochemical processes, and various behaviors.

For example, one physiological change is melatonin production disruption. Melatonin is not only a sleep hormone, as most of us might assume; it is an antioxidant too. Antioxidants are substances that may protect your cells against free radicals, which may play a role in heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. A disrupted circadian rhythm interferes with melatonin production, giving your body less of the critical compound for cellular protection.

REM sleep studies show that it is the stage of deep sleep we need to restore our emotional balance. Night shift workers don't get as much REM sleep as they need, resulting in more significant risks of irritability and mood disorders.

Are the adverse effects of night shifts reversible?

Studies suggest that the negative consequences of shift work last a long time. One study showed that despite the sleep-wake cycles of subjects returning to normal for a while, persistent changes were observed in their sleep-wake rhythms.

These disruptions seem to differ depending on the length of time as a shift worker, and there are other factors to consider. A shift worker who has to wake up early in the day to respond to the demands of a young family could fare worse than someone who can sleep for longer.

While this may sound bleak, you can take some steps to minimize these risk factors.

How to improve your health and slow down the negative impact of night shift work

Maintain a regular schedule: If possible, try to stick to a regular schedule. If you are working a night shift, go to bed at the same time each day when you get home. Wake up and have your meals at regular intervals throughout the day.

Keep a healthy diet: Make sure you are getting full-spectrum nutrition. When working night shifts, consider taking an omega-3 supplement as it helps with cognitive functioning and brain repair.

Try to exercise: Even if you feel worn out, try light exercises such as yoga or pilates. This will keep the blood flow around the body healthy. It also maintains a healthy lymphatic system which can strengthen the immune system.

Minimize alcohol consumption: Alcohol has a detrimental effect on many body systems, especially the liver. The liver is a major detox pathway for the body and is very active while we sleep. If you are sleep-deprived, then your liver function is impaired. Try not to add to the burden on the liver by over-consuming alcoholic drinks.

Change temperature: Raise the temperature during your night shift and cool the body down before sleeping. Research has shown that we sleep better when we are slightly cooler.

Get sunlight on your skin: Vitamin D is involved in the pathways for melatonin production. So it's vital to get some sunlight. Try to spend as much time outside and in the daylight before your night shift.

Protect your eyes: Wear sunglasses when you finish your shift if it's sunny. This will slow down your body's chemical processes when it thinks it's time to be awake. Limiting light exposure will also help you sleep better.

Blackout Blinds: Invest in some heavy curtains or blackout blinds for your room so that you can sleep in darkness after your night shift.

While it's clear to see that night shift work has a detrimental effect on long-term health and well-being, there are preventative steps you can take to mitigate these effects. Incorporating a few of the tips outlined in this article will go a long way to helping your body cope with the stress of night shifts.