Anyone that has ever done shift work knows how disruptive these variable shifts can be to a person’s well-being and overall health. In one study, researchers in Denmark found that women who worked night shifts were up to four times more likely to develop breast cancer than women who didn’t work nights. With about 22 million Americans involved in shift work across various sectors, finding the optimal sleep schedule can be a catch-22 situation since shift workers typically face two challenges: sleeping during the daytime and being wakeful during the nighttime. Both are contrary to natural circadian rhythms, which are the product of millions of years of evolution during which humans have stayed awake during day and slept at night. The modern assault on this sleep-wake cycle (also called the circadian rhythm) may have dire health consequences and research suggests that shift work, especially night work, has been associated with increased risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, substance abuse problems, and more.
Other medications like stimulants, sedatives, and hypnotics, are used to correct the side effects from a disrupted sleep-wake cycle but term need careful oversight of a doctor due to adverse side effects. Melatonin, on the other hand, restores and increases sleep while being a safe and non-addictive choice, both for short and long term use. Another way promote sleep is to create an environment that is conducive to restful sleep by improving the body’s natural Melatonin production by avoiding bright screens and lights at night. This can be done by minimizing blue light found from TV, computer, phone, and tablet screens and keeping the room dark at night.
Research also suggests that night shift workers are more likely to sleep less, work more hours, drive drowsy at least once a month, and have poorer overall health when compared with non-night shift workers. Fatigue related to shift work and sleep deprivation has been attributed to industrial disasters like nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania in 1979, and Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. In summary, shift work is disruptive to our sleep and well-being. Unless one is careful and take steps to mitigate the sleep disruption caused by shift-work, one may endanger his well-being and the safety of others. If you do shift work and your sleep and well being remains compromised after all your efforts, consult a doctor.
Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD, ABIHM, ABPN, is an American Board certified - Child, Adolescent, and Adult psychiatrist. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine. He holds adjunct faculty position at Emory University School of Medicine; University of Georgia & Georgia Regents University, and University of Central Florida School of Medicine. He is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta.
You can contact the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) at 1-800-35-NIOSH for more information on your rights and options. NIOSH also provides training for Nurses on Shift Work and Long Work Hours which can be assessed at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2015-115/