What Are The Health Risks Associated With Night Shifts?

Our bodies are biologically designed to work during the day and rest after dark. The circadian body clock works based on this day–night rhythm, letting various glands know when to release hormones and helping control body temperature, mood, alertness, and other aspects of the body’s daily cycle. Working during the night runs counter to our natural body cycle as we try to be active during the body’s natural rest period. A misaligned body clock in turn paves the way for health issues such as hormonal imbalance, depression, insomnia, irritability, fatigue, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

Cardiovascular Risks

A meta-analysis by Manav et al. confirmed the link between shift work and cardiovascular disorders – and the role circadian disruptions played in this. Night workers were found to be at a risk of myocardial infraction, ischemic stroke, heart failure, and hemorrhagic stroke.1


Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolic Syndrome

Diabetes and metabolic syndrome are associated with sleep and circadian disturbances. Owing to the sleep irregularities that is common among night-shift workers, pancreatic insulin is inadequately secreted, resulting in decreased metabolic rate and increased glucose concentrations.2

Hormonal Imbalance

Irregularities in the circadian rhythm can cause body hormones to go haywire. Melatonin, the sleep-regulating hormone, is active during the night. Its increased functioning makes night workers drowsy, leading to increased stress levels to combat sleep.3 Dysregulation of cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin as a result of sleep deprivation also have an adverse effect on metabolism.4


Psychological Issues And Sociocultural Maladjustment

Lack of sleep or poor sleeping habits contribute to fatigue. This leads to irritability, mood swings, and depression, chronically affecting the quality of life of shift workers. One study by Samaha et al among shift-working nurses associated chronic fatigue to poor sleep quality as a result of shiftwork.5

According to the UCLA Sleep Center, sleep deprivation and the resultant sleep debt among shift workers can lead to psychiatric problems, mood swings, and even distortions in personality. When you work through the night and compensate for lost sleep during the day, you might also be compromising on quality time with family and friends and missing out on other social and interpersonal interactions. This in turn leads to increased crankiness and social anxiety.6


Fatigue associated with sleep disruption can also lead to poor response and judgment. One study by Wong et al. even found that night-shift workers were more prone to workplace injury.7

Men Versus Women: Who Are More Affected?

Prolonged waking hours have more adverse effects on women than on men. Studies show that hormonal changes linked to the menstrual cycle interact with the circadian rhythm to create impaired cognitive performances, lower accuracy levels, and increased mood swings in women.8 Research also indicates that women who work during the night are more prone to breast cancer.9 Women workers often bear the brunt of additional responsibilities at home while tending to family and children, leading to fewer hours of sleep and the consequent vicious cycle of sleep deprivation.


Coping With The Graveyard Shift

A good night’s sleep is very crucial to the way the human body works. But when work beckons, there are things you can do to make the best of the situation and to help your body adjust.

Beat The Light

While trying to get a “proper night’s sleep” during the day, set the scene for your body. Use thick curtains or heavy blinds to block sunlight. Get eye masks and ear plugs to shut out the day’s activity around you. Stay away from the ever-beeping phone and other e-gadgets.


Stick To A Schedule

Following a routine helps in attuning your body to a different sleep–wake pattern. Undisturbed sleep for at least 7–9 hours is a must. It becomes easier to cope when the body is used to the same sleep and wake hours, even on weekends.

Brighten Your Workplace

Circadian rhythms are influenced by light. Brightly lit workplaces can help night workers stay awake and active during the night. This alleviates the fatigue of sleep deprivation to a large extent.10


Time With Family

As most of the daytime is spent catching up on sleep, night-shift workers often miss out on socializing. Make it a point to spend a segment of the hours you are awake with family and friends. This will help you stay connected and balanced.