After packing a 40-hour workweek into just three days, and with several projects still to get through in the four remaining days, I had to take a deep breath and think about how I was going to make it to the end of the week and still have my sanity. Every so often, no matter what’s on our plate, it’s important to make time to look out for number one and make sure that all those hours, and all that pressure, don’t catch up to you and knock you down. One of my favorite health podcasts recently took the opportunity to address this very question about how to stay healthy while doing shift work. While the podcast is specifically addressing people who work off hours, most of the tenets of health outlined in the podcast are universal.
It’s all about the Melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone that’s naturally produced by the body that regulates the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. During the day melatonin is naturally low and high at night, and is a result of millions of years of evolution of our bodies working in harmony with light and dark cycles. This rise and fall in melatonin secretion is related to our circadian rhythm and what happens when we work late into the night is we expose ourselves to artificial light which disrupts melatonin production, raising cortisol (also known as our stress hormone), and interfering with our body’s natural rhythm. The health effects of this hormone disruption are significant.
Some frightening statistics
Every cell in the body seems to be affected by this disruption and shift work is associated with a wide variety of problems including insomnia, depression, and gastrointestinal disturbances, as well as an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, decreases in fertility, increased risk for diabetes and other metabolic disorders, increased risk for cancer, and an overall increased risk of death. More specifically, rates of prostate and breast cancer in men and women who do shift work rise 40% to 70%. There’s also some evidence suggesting that one’s risk of stroke rises by 5% for every year of doing shift work.
The deeper problem
Obviously it’s not as simple as just hormone secretion. What we find is that people who do shift work, or who work late into the night, also adopt a number of poor lifestyle habits. For example, shift workers are more likely to eat at restaurants or eat poor quality fast food instead of cooking at home. They’re also less likely to seek an adequate amount of exercise. Mixing poor lifestyle habits with hormone disruption appears to be a recipe for poor health.
What can you do?
Well the obvious answers here are to make sure you’re eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, getting enough exercise, and, when possible, obeying our body’s natural rhythms. Less obvious is a handy trick called light control. That is, first, ensuring that when you’re sleeping during the day that you’re blocking out all light sources and sleeping in total darkness. Second, while working at night it’s important to use the right kind of lighting, and when working at night you should be using very bright LED lighting at full power. The idea here is essentially to trick your body that night is day and day is night. Chris Kresser also recommends that when leaving work in the morning when the sun is beginning to rise, that shift workers filter out blue wavelengths of light by wearing amber tinted glasses. By filtering out these blue wavelengths you are sending signals to your body that nighttime is coming, even if it’s not.
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