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The dangers of night shifts for medical workers

Shift work is a way of life for many in the medical field. Emergencies happen around the clock. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other medical professionals rarely have the luxury of working 9 to 5.

For many, shift work has benefits: more flexible hours, the ability to work part-time and longer periods off. Yet it also has downsides. Whether you regularly work the graveyard shift or have an alternating schedule that includes some night hours, you may be at risk for serious health problems over the long term.

Understanding the risks

Numerous studies have shown that shift work leads to higher rates of illness, including:

  • Obesity
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Reproductive disorders
  • Mental health problems

Shift work also impairs brain functioning - such as memory, focus and problem-solving skills - leading to an increased risk of accidents and mistakes at work. The fatigue that comes with shift work can also make it dangerous to drive.

Put simply, shift work can derail your overall health.

But why?

It's built in

Research shows that circadian rhythms - that is, regular sleep/wake cycles - are more vital to our health than we realize. In fact, it's built into our biology. Our internal clock affects virtually every aspect of our body, from our brain to our metabolism, digestion and immune system. Repeatedly disrupting this clock can derail all of these systems. For example, circadian disruptions can suppress the genes that attack tumor growth, leading to increased risk of cancer. Recognizing this fact, the World Health Organization has classified night-shift work as a probable carcinogen. Additionally, shift workers who regularly eat late at night (when their metabolism has slowed down) are more likely to suffer from obesity and inflammation.

Those who work permanent graveyard shifts can eventually adjust, provided they keep the same schedule on their days off. For most shift workers, though, rotating schedules make it impossible to ever fully adjust to changing sleep cycles. Essentially, with each alternating shift, their bodies go through jet lag - again and again and again.

How to stay healthy

The only surefire way to avoid these ill effects is to quit shift work altogether. Of course, that's not a realistic option for many. But you can help offset the risks by:

  • Ensuring that you get enough sleep, even if that means missing out on other activities
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Eating healthy
  • Minimizing your exposure to light (especially artificial light) when it's time to sleep
  • Monitoring your health through regular check-ups

Being proactive - rather than reactive - is the best way to safeguard your health in light of the proven risks of shift work.

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