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Why working the night shift endangers your health

Several modern day adults do not work the typical 9 to 5 jobs in today’s world. Vera Onana write about the host of health problems that could be faced by such employees especially those working in the night shift.

In May 2016, a study targeted at identifying the health problems and social implications of night shift duties among nurses in a general hospital in Uyo, Nigeria, advocated that health education on good sleep hygiene and introduction of naps during duty hours may be useful in reducing the negative impact of night shift duties. That conclusion was reached based on the findings of the research as published in the Journal of Scientific Research and Reports.

Ofonime Johnson and Daniel Okeke, both from the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital discovered while carrying out research for the study that the top five problems reported by the night shift workers were fatigue, headache, body pains, reduced family time and falling asleep on duty.



However, night shifts are not synonymous with only nurses in the world today. We live in a 24/7 world. From around-the-clock patient care in hospitals to overnight services in hotels and restaurants, the publishing and production in media houses as well as the security agencies and outfits.  There is work to be done from sundown to sunrise and for more employees, that means working shifts.

Shift work, may have become a social and economic necessity, but, according to researchers, it may not necessarily be a benign one, most especially the night shift.

In today’s hustle and bustle, some adult workers have come to see sleep as an indulgence in the face of many bills to pay.But according to sleep experts, sleep is as essential as breathing and eating. It is that time when the brain processes what it has done during the day and lay down memories. It is also the time when the body carries out some basic maintenance.

“Though night shift workers may claim to get plenty of sleep, it may be at the wrong time,” said Adebunmi Akiniyi.

It is always being assumed that the human body clock would adapt to the demands of working at night, but one of Britain’s leading sleep experts, Professor Russell Foster, from Oxford University, said “the really extraordinary finding across a whole range of different studies, is that you don’t adapt”.

Research on the effects of shift work on health goes back for decades,” said Dr Ron Saunders, a senior scientist at the Institute for Work and Health (IWH).

According to researchers, a shift worker, particularly one who works nights, functions on a schedule that is not “natural” and the effects of constantly changing schedules can upset one’s circadian rhythm (the 24-hour body cycle), cause sleep deprivation and disorders of the gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems, make existing disorders worse and disrupt family and social life.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that shift work that involves circadian disruption should be considered a Group 2A carcinogen and probably carcinogenic to humans. Group 2A means that its conclusion was based on limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.

IARC based their conclusion on studies on long-term night workers who have shown a higher risk of breast cancer than women who do not work at night.



Aside from the risk of cancer, night shift jobs that disrupt the normal 24-hour cycle of the human body have been discovered by researchers to be responsible for a range of other health problems while increasing the risk of some.

Researchers say that gastrointestinal and digestive problems such as indigestion, heartburn, stomachache and loss of appetite are more common among rotating shift workers and night workers than among day workers. It is less clear if more serious conditions such as peptic ulcers are more common in shift workers. The irregular work, sleep and eating schedules are not helpful for the proper care of ulcers.

“Given the irregularity in type and timing of meals, it is not surprising that the night worker is more likely to have a poorer diet. At night, the loss of appetite often leads to increased snacking on “junk” food rather than eating a full, well-balanced meal. Feelings of fatigue may encourage the consumption of beverages with caffeine (coffee, cola) to help the worker stay awake.”

Asides from that, in another study in the journal SLEEP, a team of researchers found out that though shift work may not absolutely be associated with cardiovascular disease, the heart rate and blood pressure have been shown to follow the circadian rhythm.

Therefore, any life-style that affects the cycle may directly affect an individual’s cardiovascular health.

Working the night shift could also provoke negative metabolic changes. It could lead to lower levels of leptin, the hormone known to play a role in regulating weight, as well as affect blood sugar and insulin levels, Health.com, reported.

The findings of a research published in 2009 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that these changes could lead to a higher risk of serious health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

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