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Shift work affects your health way more than you know

Shift work affects your health way more than you know

Shift work affects your health way more than you know as a recent study suggests that going against our biological body clocks may be harmful to our long-term health. This is because it alters the way in which our gut and brain communicate with one another.


When the majority of people in the United States are just getting ready for bed, millions of workers are just getting started. These people, along with others like them, make up the 20% of the global workforce that does shift work.

Examples of shift workers include emergency responders and industrial operators.  It also includes healthcare workers and so on. Their erratic sleeping and waking patterns increase their vulnerability to a wide range of health issues. These include diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and strokes.

However, it’s possible that the ramifications of working shifts are more severe than we had previously thought. Even after returning to a schedule that is more consistent, a recent study that was published in the journal Neurobiology of Sleep and Circadian Rhythms suggests that the adverse effects of shift work may continue to manifest themselves for an extended period of time.

David Earnest, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics at Texas A&M University College of Medicine
David Earnest, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics at Texas A&M University College of Medicine

Shift work affects your health way more than you know

According to David Earnest, “Shift work, especially rotating shift work, confuses our body clocks. This has important ramifications in terms of our health and well-being as well as our connection to human disease.”

“When our internal body clocks are in sync with one another, they allow all of our biological activities to be coordinated. This is so that they occur at the appropriate time of day or night. When the internal clocks of our bodies are thrown off, whether by working rotating shifts or by some other form of disturbance, this can result in alterations in physiology, biochemical processes and a variety of behaviors,” he added.

As revealed by Earnest and colleagues, animal models with rotating shift work schedules showed poorer stroke results. This is in terms of both brain damage and functional impairments compared to those with standard 24-hour cycles of day and night. The consequences were significantly worse for males, with significantly higher death rates.

A fresh strategy was utilized in this ground-breaking research. Instead of looking at the immediate impact that shift work has on strokes, the researchers switched all of the individuals back to typical 24-hour cycles. They waited until the equivalent of their midlife to assess the severity of strokes and the outcomes. This is the time in a person’s life when they are most likely to have a stroke.

The effects of working shift work

According to Earnest, “what was already born out in epidemiological research is that most people only experience shift work for five to eight years. After that, they presumably go back to conventional work hours.” This information was gleaned from previous studies. “We wanted to find out if that was enough to fix any problems caused by these changes in circadian rhythm. Also, to check if these effects still lingered even when people went back to their normal work schedules.”


They discovered that the negative effects of working shifts do, in fact, remain consistent across time. Even after being exposed to a regular schedule at a later point in time, the sleep-wake cycles of participants who were subjected to shift work schedules never really recovered to normal. They demonstrated persistent changes in their sleep-wake cycles in comparison to the controls. That is, those who were kept on a regular day-night cycle throughout the course of the research.

This resulted in bouts of anomalous activity occurring during times when sleep would have typically occurred. When they experienced strokes, their outcomes were once again much poorer than those of the control group. The only difference was that females had more severe functional impairments and a higher death rate than males.

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The negative effects of shift work affect women more.

Farida Sohrabji, professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics and director of the Women's Health in Neuroscience Program
Farida Sohrabji, professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics and director of the Women’s Health in Neuroscience Program

According to Farida Sohrabji, “the data from this study takes on added health-related significance. This was found especially in females. This is because stroke is a risk factor for dementia and disproportionately affects older women.”

In addition, the researchers found that the patients who had been subjected to a shift work schedule had higher amounts of inflammatory mediators coming from their gut. According to Earnest, “We now think that part of the underlying mechanism for what we’re seeing in terms of circadian rhythm disruption causing more severe strokes may involve altered interactions between the brain and gut.”

The findings of this research could, at some point in the future, pave the way for the invention of treatments. Treatments that mitigate the unfavorable consequences of disturbances in circadian rhythms. In the meantime, shift workers can take better care of their internal body clocks. They could do this by avoiding a high-fat diet, which can cause inflammation. Also, they could change the timing of circadian rhythms by trying to keep a regular schedule as much as possible.

Implication of the findings

The findings of this study have obvious repercussions for those who work rotating shifts. However, they could also apply to a wide variety of other people whose schedules vary substantially from day to day.

Many more of us are no longer required to work from nine to five as a direct result of the advent of the computer era. Earnest explained that “we carry our work home with us and sometimes work late into the night.” Even those of us who have normal work schedules have a propensity to stay up late on the weekends. This can lead to what is known as “social jet lag.” This similarly throws off our internal clocks, causing them to lose the ability to keep exact time. All of this can have the same negative effects on human health as working different shifts.

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Earnest suggests that the best way to minimize some of these potential health risks is to stick to a routine. This routine should includes set hours for waking up, going to sleep and eating. Also, that this routine should not be subject to significant shifts from day to day.

Furthermore, you should avoid things like eating a diet high in fat and not getting enough exercise. Also, avoid drinking too much alcohol and smoking, which are all linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Tell your friends: shift work affects their health way more than they know

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