The disruption to shift workers’ natural bodily rhythms may play a part in their increased risk of disease, according to a new study.
Every human body runs on a 24-hour clock. This system, known as the circadian rhythm, uses factors such as daylight to determine when a person sleeps and wake.
It also has an effect on bodily functions such as metabolism and cognition. However, in the modern age, technology and varying working hours can disrupt this delicate balance.
Conflict between a person’s natural bodily rhythm and the way they live can have a number of detrimental effects, including hormonal changes.
These alterations can lead to metabolic syndrome. This is a condition that increases a person’s risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Night shift workers, who make up almost a fifth of the United States workforce, are more likely to experience these effects than others. Not only are they more likely to develop sleep disorders, they are also at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes than other workers.
Also, people who work irregular or rotating shifts may face an even greater risk of sleep problems and metabolic syndrome.
Previously, researchers believed that the lifestyle habits that tend to go hand-in-hand with shift work was responsible for this increased risk. However, no solid evidence exists to back up this belief.
Researchers are therefore beginning to dig deeper into the relationship between shift patterns and metabolic syndrome.
A new review in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association did exactly that, focusing on the circadian rhythm.
Examining a number of studies and clinical trials from 2018, the review authors used the findings to propose ways of reducing the circadian impact of shift work, such as optimizing sleep and diet.
“It’s true that getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising are critical to everyone’s health,” says lead study author Kshma Kulkarni, from the Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine in California.
“However, the nature of shift work is so disorienting and discordant with those principles, we really need to help people in those jobs strategize ways to get what they need.”
It is not only individual workers who can help. Employers and healthcare professionals also have a responsibility to make changes.
Improving general health
Good quality sleep is one of the simplest ways to prevent detrimental health effects. Shift workers themselves should try to sleep for 7–8 hours at the same time every day, suggests Kulkarni.
In order to aid the body’s natural cycle, workers should try to sleep in the evening, or as close to the evening as possible. They can take naps earlier on, and these should last between 20 and 120 minutes.
Moving away from rotating shift patterns is one way employers can help in this area. Kulkarni also suggests that employers should ensure that shifts begin before midnight and last for no longer than 11 hours.
Nutrition is another element to tackle. Research has shown that shift workers tend to miss meals and opt for sugary snacks instead.
Eating three meals per day is vital, says Kulkarni. These meals, along with any snacks a person has, should include a good amount of protein and vegetables.
Consuming more calories earlier in a person’s day is also a beneficial step to take. Employers should therefore try to schedule breaks earlier in a shift and offer more healthful snack options.
Shift workers should also try to take exercise levels into account. Kulkarni recommends working out around the same time each day, at least 5 hours before bedtime.
It may be best to prioritize aerobic exercise, such as running and dancing, as this may boost the quality of a person’s sleep.
The importance of light
These three factors are not the only lifestyle choices that may benefit shift workers.
Sufficient light exposure may also help. Certain light sources can alter a person’s circadian rhythm to their advantage.
Night workers should try to increase their exposure to light before shifts and throughout. Installing high intensity lights in workplaces can also help employees feel more awake.
It is also important to avoid blue light 2–3 hours before going to sleep.
Not forgetting medicine
Kulkarni and colleagues also believe that medical treatment is of interest.
Medications that help control the sleep cycle, such as certain benzodiazepines and antidepressants, may benefit people at risk of metabolic syndrome.
Similarly, a physical technique called osteopathic manipulative treatment can reduce the amount of time shift workers spend trying to fall asleep.
“It is critical we address the health issues facing people in this line of work,” Kulkarni explains, particularly because “the strength of our economy and safety of our society depend heavily on night shift workers.”
To prevent metabolic syndrome, healthcare professionals should check workers — especially those in sectors including hospitality and the emergency services — for signs of a disrupted circadian rhythm.
With early detection, a person can successfully implement lifestyle modifications and treatment regimens.
However, further research is necessary to determine the most effective strategies.
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