Shift Work and the Impact on Heart Health

Lisa Nelson, RD, LN Health Pro
  • Not too long ago I had an individual ask a question about the impact of working at night on health. This is a great question and something you may not think about, so I wanted to share the answer with you.

     

    Question:

     

    Does working nights affect my health, especially heart?

     

    Answer:

     

    There is strong evidence that shift work is linked to some serious health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Additional health concerns linked to shift work include stomach ulcers and depression.

     

    By shift work, I'm not only referring to those who work at night. This also includes individuals who rotate shifts during the week. There are about 8.6 million people in the US that work in shifts. Think about all this applies to - police offices, nurses, doctors, truck drivers, firefights, waitresses, etc.

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    The reason shift work impacts health may be due to both the type of lifestyle you lead when you work in shifts and biology.

     

    Examples for ‘type of lifestyle' having an impact on health would be increased difficulty sleeping and sleep loss or decreased socialization making you feel isolated due to hours not coordinating with friends hours. Shift work can also lead to reduced regular activity and increased eating from vending machines.

     

    The biology aspect may have to do with your schedule not coinciding with normal biological rhythms. For example, working the night shift disrupts the circadian rhythm (internal clock that follows patterns of daylight and darkness). This circadian rhythm impacts body functions, which is why disrupting the rhythm can have some many health consequences.

     

    The impact of shift work is currently an area being researched. What I've shared above is not definitive, but evidence to date is strongly pointing this way.

     

    Short-Term Impact

     

    Let's say you don't typically work in shifts, but you've experienced times that have affected your circadian rhythm, such as an overseas flight or sleepless nights with a newborn. Here are typical symptoms you experience:

     

    Upset stomach (nausea, diarrhea, constipation, heart burn)
    Insomnia

    Poor quality of life
    Depressed sense of well-being

     

    What Can You Do

     

    Well, quitting your job isn't a very realistic option, so let's discuss a few steps you can take to promote good health if your job requires shift work.


    Working in shifts is just one risk factor that may increase your risk for certain diseases. There are many other factors that play a role. You need to take steps to ensure you eat a well balanced diet (if you are heading to the vending machine on a nightly basis you need to find an alternative!), make time for physical activity, and ensure you can get enough sleep and the sleep is good quality (Is your bedroom nice and dark? Does your family respect that you need to sleep?).

     

    If you work a rotating schedule it can be very difficult to establish a routine, particular when it comes to sleep. It may be worth while to discuss with your employer options for a more stable schedule.

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Published On: August 19, 2011