Let’s take a moment to thank the emergency service people who work around the clock 24/7, in shifts to keep us safe and out of harm’s way.
But in doing so, they may be putting their own health at risk more than they realise.
Epidemiological (population) studies of shift workers show a…
- 30% increased risk of most cancers
- 40% increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- 39% increased risk of obesity
- 32% increased risk of diabetes
- And a massive 102% increased risk in autoimmune diseases
While this may seem alarming, getting adequate deep (delta) sleep can reduce these risks considerably. In this blog, we will discuss the risks and simple solutions to get the best sleep you can, in the time you have.
While emergency service workers are busy saving our lives, this article may help save theirs. Sleep is the cornerstone of recovery and repair for the human body. Without adequate sleep you simply won’t restore your cells effectively.
While this might not seem like much of an issue at surface level, having abnormal circadian rhythms (sleep – wake cycles) is quite an insidious health condition.
Recent research suggests that shift workers are at a higher risk for type-2 diabetes, insomnia, obesity, adrenal fatigue, low testosterone, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and a variety of other health issues.1
Ideally, shift workers could simply find a different job that has “normal” daytime working hours, however that’s simply not how the world works. Thankfully, there are ways to circumvent circadian rhythm abnormalities (i.e. circadian dysrhythmias) if you’re a shift worker, primarily through pre-sleep planning, dietary adjustments and smart use of nutritional supplements.
CIRCADIAN DYSRHYTHMIA: WHY SHIFT WORKERS ARE AT RISK
Circadian rhythm refers to any biological process that operates on a 24-hour rhythm (known as a circadian clock). These internal oscillators are present in many living organisms, and control many physiological processes including hormone secretion, blood pressure changes, bowel movements, sleep and much more.
Circadian clocks are more or less determined by solar rhythms. Basically, your body has different responses to light times of day than it does to dark times of the day. Most circadian rhythms act in a diurnal (daily) pattern.
For example, the human body naturally secretes its largest amount of cortisol and testosterone in the early morning. Levels of these two hormones then tend to decrease throughout the day and increase again the following morning.
In the case of shift workers, these rhythms get thrown off because they may be working when it’s 3am and dark out. This forces the body to have different biological processes functioning that would normally be “resting” (like digestion, bowel movements, etc.).
HEALTH RAMIFICATIONS OF DISRUPTED CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS
Shift workers who have disrupted circadian rhythms are shown to be at a greater risk of developing type-2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, cognitive decline and a variety of other health conditions.1 It’s not yet fully understood how circadian dysrhythmia increases the risk for these health conditions, but a large part of it stems from abnormal eating times, reduced insulin sensitivity, excessive cortisol secretion, reduced testosterone and reduced melatonin.
To compound the issue, shift workers are naturally at risk of sleep deprivation (we have an article that details the many health risks of sleep loss and how you can improve your sleep patterns).
It should be intuitive that not sleeping enough, producing too much cortisol (the primary stress hormone), having an irregular meal schedule and poor insulin sensitivity are all major no-no’s for someone trying to stay healthy and lean.
If you’re a shift worker and wondering, “What the heck should I do? I can’t just quit my job!” then you’ve come to right place.
STAYING HEALTHY WHILE BEING A SHIFT WORKER
Research shows that light has a direct impact on human longevity and well-being because of its effect on circadian rhythms.2 This is precisely why some shift workers, especially those who work late nights in an office, can benefit by using high-intensity lighting in their work space. This type of “artificial lighting” works to essentially mimic the light from the sun. Animal studies suggest it can regulate circadian clocks in a natural manner.3
Remember, circadian rhythms are trainable - meaning you can adjust them with appropriate tactics.
- Don’t eat 2 hours before going to bed, whatever time that may be for you.
- Don’t exercise within 2 hours before bed. Exercise increases adrenalin and cortisol which may reduce your deep sleep.
- Minimise stimulants (including coffee) within 4-6 hours of sleep. Have your pre-workout or fat burner upon waking to get your cortisol in rhythm.
- Make sure your bedroom is dark (using blackout curtains is advisable) and cool (18 degrees is ideal).
- When you wake immediately get outdoors in the sunlight (even if it’s cloudy). The LUX (Intensity) of the sun’s rays is 10 – 100x higher than indoor lighting. This will help boost cortisol upon waking, which helps train your circadian rhythm.
- Have ½ to 1 tsp of Himalayan or Celtic sea salt in water upon rising.
- Drink a supplement containing Magnesium and Ashwagandha 1 hour before bed. This will reduce cortisol allowing for your body to release melatonin.
Note: Melatonin is a hormone released from the pineal gland in your brain. It helps you get to sleep, detoxifies your body of excess estrogen (balancing your hormones) and is known to reduce rates of cancer.
Using a nutritional supplement with adaptogens like Ashwagandha is another great way to tackle the issues many shift workers face.
Research supports ashwagandha for lowering cortisol, especially in response to stress such as sleep loss.4 Remember while cortisol is high, melatonin won’t get released and the likelihood of a good sleep is low.
This is especially crucial for shift workers who tend to have erratic cortisol secretions, which can in turn decrease insulin sensitivity and lead to overeating. Magnesium citrate, which is a major regulator of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA). This axis helps to balance hormones in the body which improve the way you look, feel and function.
Note: Magnesium oxide is poorly absorbed so should not be used as a first choice.
Magnesium modulates the production of several key hormones, including testosterone and serotonin, helping you relax and recover when it’s finally time to sleep.
Note: 2 hours less sleep may result in a 50% reduction in testosterone. This can take up to 5 days to return to normal. Both men and women need testosterone for muscle maintenance, fat burning, libido etc.
If you are a shift worker then maybe a change in career is the healthiest option. However, not the easiest. Be sure to follow the above suggestions to get the best possible sleep. For more information on sleep hacks.
Disclaimer: The above article is merely a guide and is in no way a recommendation or a treatment protocol for any health conditions or diseases. You should always consult with a qualified health care provider before changing your supplement, training or nutritional strategy. Supplementation should not be attempted by pregnant or breastfeeding women, anyone on prescription medication or children under the age of 15 unless advised by your qualified health care provider.
- Zelinski EL, Deibel SH, McDonald RJ (March 2014). "The trouble with circadian clock dysfunction: multiple deleterious effects on the brain and body". Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 40 (40): 80–101.
- Figueiro MG, Rea MS, Bullough JD (August 2006). "Does architectural lighting contribute to breast cancer?". Journal of Carcinogenesis. 5: 20.
- Walmsley L, Hanna L, Mouland J, Martial F, West A, Smedley AR, Bechtold DA, Webb AR, Lucas RJ, Brown TM (April 2015). "Colour as a signal for entraining the mammalian circadian clock". PLoS Biology. 13 (4): e1002127.
- Singh, N., Bhalla, M., de Jager, P., & Gilca, M. (2011). An overview on ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines, 8(5S). Credit