New Delhi: Shift workers are at a significantly higher risk of sleep disorders and metabolic syndrome, which increases a person’s risk for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, according to a review of studies led by an Indian origin researcher. The study, published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, noted that the risks increase even more for those who work irregular or rotating shifts.
“The strength of our economy and safety of our society depend heavily on night shift workers,” said Kshma Kulkarni, from Touro University in the US, and lead study author of the study. “It is critical we address the health issues facing people in this line of work,” Kulkarni said.
She said that shift workers are central to the travel, hospitality and e-commerce industries, as well as the 24-hour support needed from nurses, physicians and first-responders, like police and firefighters. One study found 9 per cent of night-shift nurses developed metabolic syndrome, compared to only 1.8 per cent of day shift nurses, the researchers said.
Other studies have noted that risks gradually increase with accumulated years of shift work, they said. Working nights disrupts individuals’ circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock responsible for neural and hormonal signalling, according to the researchers. Once a person’s circadian rhythm is desynchronised from their sleep/wake cycle, they will likely experience disturbances in hormonal levels, including increased cortisol, ghrelin and insulin, and decreased serotonin, among others, they explained. The cascade of hormonal changes is what prompts the development of metabolic disorders, and causes people to develop multiple chronic conditions, the researchers said.
Kulkarni recommends the first essential step for night shift workers is to establish consistent sleeping hours. Employers can help by eliminating rotating shifts that disrupt sleep patterns even further, she said. They can also schedule shifts to start before midnight and last no more than 11 hours to help workers adjust, and stabilise their new circadian rhythm, according to Kulkarni.
Exposure to light promotes wakefulness in general, so researchers recommend night shift workers increase their light exposure prior to and throughout their shifts. Previous studies have shown shift workers are more likely to eat snacks higher in sugar and saturated fat while consuming less protein and vegetables, and more likely to skip meals. Kulkarni recommends shift workers exercise at a similar time each day, at least 5 hours before they go to bed.
They should incorporate aerobic exercise into their physical activity, as it has specifically been indicated to improve sleep quality. she said. “It’s true that getting enough sleep, eating right and exercising are critical to everyone’s health,” said Kulkarni. “However, the nature of shift work is so disorienting and discordant with those principles, we really need to help people in those jobs strategise ways to get what they need,” she said.