Night Shift Impacts Sleep For Some More Than Others, New Research Shows

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Heading out to work while everyone else goes to bed can be difficult at best, and seriously tough on your sleep and health at worst. The impact of night shift work can go beyond poor sleep quality, a new study has found. The study was recently released in Frontiers in Psychiatry, and while it supports previous research that has identified the overall impact on night shift workers’ health, the study also sheds light on the relationship between night shift work and specific sociodemographic factors.

“There is a lot of evidence that shift work reduces the quality of sleep,” says Marike Lancel, Ph.D., senior author of the study and researcher at the University of Groningen in a recent press release. “However, little is known about the influence of different types of shifts on the prevalence of various sleep disorders, and how this may vary depending on demographic characteristics.” 

Overall Impact of Night Shift Work

Any time sleep fluctuates or schedules change, there can be an impact on the body. While this can often lead to feelings of grogginess, working night shifts or nontraditional work schedules actually play against the body’s natural circadian rhythms.

“Working a night shift impacts body, mind, and sleep,” Kevin Postol, DMD, President-Elect of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, tells Sleepopolis. “It has been shown to increase inflammation, cortisol levels, and metabolic syndrome. It has also been shown to decrease long-term memory and the amount of quality of sleep.”

The study involved participants who shared insight on their shift work patterns, provided information on which shift they worked, and if they switched shifts. They also completed a screening questionnaire for common sleep disorder categories, such as insomnia and sleep-related breathing issues. Of the 37,000 people surveyed for the study, half reported sleeping less than six hours at a time and 51 percent reported a diagnosed sleep disorder.

On top of some of the obvious challenges of working the night shift, Postol also acknowledges that employees who work at night often don’t have access to the same quality of food that typical day shift workers do. This can lead to unhealthy food choices during the night that can ultimately impact overall health for years to come.

Postol explains that some studies have shown that night shift workers who maintain their eating schedule during the day and avoid eating at night weigh less, have decreased health issues, and end up sleeping better. So, in the midst of a schedule that might feel a bit beyond your control, that’s an area you can focus on to preserve your health working the night shift.

Studies have shown an increased risk for cancer, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease if working night shifts for a period of 5-10 years,” says Postol. “A long-term study was done on the impact of lack of sleep and nurses working day shifts vs. night shifts and its impact on health. Nurses working the night shift gained more weight and had a 2 1/2x increase in chance of breast cancer.” 

Certain Demographics Are More Severely Impacted

While anybody can face adverse side effects to night shift work, the Netherlands study showed that most often, young adults and/or those with lower education were impacted more significantly, with higher percentages of sleep disorders and comorbidities.

“Night shifts may be appealing because they often come with financial incentives, so people may be willing to set aside the health impacts, especially when those impacts are more long-term,” adds Postol. 

Additionally, the Netherlands study revealed that while men often sleep less than women, women are more likely to have a sleep disorder.

Each individual has to weigh the financial and personal health benefits and risks of taking on a night shift position.

Managing the Night Shift

While it’s not always realistic for people to avoid working the night shift, certain things can be done to help minimize its effect on the body.

“Eating healthier and trying not to shift back and forth between sleeping days is important,” says Postol. “Also, when you do sleep, try to ensure you get more than seven hours and that you are getting quality sleep. If you are snoring or find yourself gasping for air when you do sleep, you may have obstructive sleep apnea.” 

As anyone who has worked a night shift knows, it can be tough on your body. But by increasing your awareness of healthy food choices and trying to get as much consistent sleep as you can, you can mitigate those risks and thrive doing so.

Alexandra Frost

Alexandra Frost

Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice.  She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.

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