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Is shift work bad for your health?

As many of us head home for some dinner, Netflix and a good night’s sleep, a whole host of other people are just starting their working day. As a 24-hour society, shift work is pivotal to our economy and integral to many important careers. But what is the health cost of working outside of the nine to five?

Well, the stats aren’t uplifting: shift workers are significantly more likely to experience type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, heart disease and stroke. But does it have to be that way? Whether you’re a student working night shift in hospitality or a graduate gearing up for a career in nursing there are steps you can take to reduce the effects of shift work on your health.

How does shift work impact your health?

A shift worker’s schedule can cause havoc in the body, says Associate Professor Brad Aisbett, Associate Head of School (Teaching and Learning, Exercise and Sport Science) in Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Science. ‘Changing when you’re sleeping, when you’re awake and when you eat, over time, disrupts the body’s natural rhythms and makes you more susceptible to certain diseases.’

Assoc. Prof. Aisbett has teamed up with Early Career Researcher Dr Séverine Lamon to research the role of skeletal muscle in the metabolic health of shift workers. According to Dr Lamon, disrupted sleep patterns and exposure to artificial light lead to a higher than normal release of cortisol – the body’s stress hormone – which throws off the body’s process of building up and breaking down muscle.

In simple terms, spending your days asleep and your nights at work changes the way your hormones react because they are naturally entrained to a daytime rhythm. Messing with your body clock impacts your testosterone, insulin and cortisol production. And a healthy body – including healthy skeletal muscle – is contingent on healthy hormones.

'Changing when you’re sleeping, when you’re awake and when you eat, over time, disrupts the body’s natural rhythms and makes you more susceptible to certain diseases.'

Assoc. Prof. Brad Aisbett,
School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University

What are the warning signs to look out for?

According to Assoc. Prof. Aisbett, both behavioural changes and body changes may indicate your health is being impacted by shift work. ‘The shortened sleep aspect of shift work increases your risk of weight gain so if you are getting consistently less than seven hours a night you are 25% more likely to be obese.’ In particular, putting weight on around the midriff may be an indicator that you need to examine how your work life is affecting your health.

Another early indicator is the way you snack. If you are suffering from shortened sleep you are more likely to eat foods that are high in fats and carbs because your body craves the energy. Dr Lamon, an expert in protein metabolism, says a high-protein diet is essential for building muscle. ‘The type, amount, and timing of protein ingestion are all critical in metabolism.’

Some studies also show that shift work impacts alcohol consumption. Assoc. Prof. Aisbett says research has found ‘that shift workers don’t drink more than those on standard work rosters but they are more at risk of binge drinking’. While there’s no hard evidence yet, it’s thought that heavy alcohol consumption could reduce how quickly muscles regenerate.

And as you’d expect, shortened sleep can also impact your mood. Research that shows that people who are routinely getting shorter sleep are 30% more likely to suffer from clinical depression. If you are experiencing any changes to your mood it is important to seek help from a doctor.

How can shift workers protect their health?

Considering shift work is an essential part of the way we live, Assoc. Prof. Aisbett believes it’s important to implement good practices to reduce the effects of shift work. He stresses the importance of maximising your sleep opportunity when you get it. ‘Whether that’s one long period or two shorter periods, trying to get seven hours of sleep a day at least. Part of that might be managing your family situation so that you can have a quiet, cool and dark sleeping environment.’

Eating a high protein diet is also important. Ignore those cravings for high fats and high carbs because if you’re working shifts, your body is more susceptible to putting on weight.

Committing to both endurance-based exercise and resistance-based exercise is essential for those working night shift. And aim to get some sleep before training: Assoc. Prof. Aisbett and Dr Lamon’s research suggests that you get the most from your resistance training if you do it after a period of rest rather than a long period of being awake.

While there isn’t yet an exact prescription on how to cope with the demands of shift work, Assoc. Prof. Aisbett has met many long-term shift workers who have found systems that meet their personal needs. If shift work is part of your life, ensure that you sleep, eat, drink and exercise in a way that supports your health.

Missing too much sleep by combining full-time study with shift work? Here are some of the best jobs for full-time students.

If you’re keen to study how exercise and nutrition can enhance lives you can learn more about these courses at the School of Exercise and Nutrition.

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Associate Professor Brad Aisbett
Associate Professor Brad Aisbett

Associate Head of School, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University

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Dr Séverine Lamon
Dr Séverine Lamon

ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University

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