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Zorba Paster: The Health Risks Of Shift Work

Shift Workers Need To Be Dilligent About Living A Healthy Lifestyle

David Goldman/AP Photo

Shift workers have it tough. I used to work in the ER — I remember it well. If I worked 3 to 11 p.m., I never got to see my friends. If I worked 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., I was wiped out all day. I knew that lifestyle was not for me.

But if you’re a nurse in a hospital, you don’t have a choice. People get sick 24/7. They need your help.

Working the night shift often means not eating right, with fewer selections at the hospital cafeteria, and less exercise. When your circadian rhythm is disturbed, everything goes out the window.

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A mammoth health study focusing on nurses also indicates something else — that shift work might be a factor in the diabetes epidemic we face in this country.

The Nurses’ Health Study started in 1976, enrolling 140,000 female nurses who didn’t have diabetes, heart disease or cancer. These nurses diligently filled out questionnaires about their lifestyle, including what they ate, how much they exercised, whether they smoked, etc. Shift work was defined as working three night shifts per month.

Over approximately a 25-year period, nearly 11,000 nurses out of the 140,000 in the study developed diabetes. As you would expect, nurses who didn’t exercise regularly, who were overweight, who smoked and who ate a poor diet with few fruits and veggies were more likely to be diabetic.

But what surprised researchers was that shift work was another independent factor in the development of diabetes. When they did the math, they figured out that 80 percent of the risk for diabetes was from poor lifestyle and 20 percent was from doing shift work.

Why is this? When we change our sleep and wake times, we change our circadian rhythms. Among other things, these circadian rhythms affect our hormones, other metabolic pathways and the balance of bacteria in the gut. This is all speculative, but it could be a factor in health issues.

My spin: If you do shift work, you have to be even more diligent about living a healthy lifestyle. Hospitals should provide better working conditions and better food for those on the night shift. I am sure all shift workers — from those in convenience stores to over-the-road truckers — have the same risks.