Night Shifts May be a Dark Time for Health

The night shift may be lonely, tedious, and even a little creepy, leaving you tired and having a bad effect on your social life.  Now scientists have found it may even damage your health, increasing your chances of getting diabetes.  In addition, the longer you work shifts the more your risk of diabetes grows.

Nevertheless, is the increased risk due to years of stress and disruption to normal sleeping patterns, or simply the result of late night snacking due to boredom and lack of exercise due to the women being asleep in the day when gyms are open and jogging is safe?

Dr Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, led the team and reported on their findings in the journal PLoS Medicine.  The scientists looked at data from the twoUS Nurses’ Health Studies I and II, including a group of 69,000 women from the first study and almost 108,000 from the second.  These two studies, carried out over many years from 1976 and 1989, have been an invaluable source of information for medical researchers looking at the health of older women.  They took in almost 122,000 women over the decades, using registered nurses and following them through their lives to record data on the development of cancers, heart disease, and other diseases.

In the new study, the researchers looked at data from nurses who did rotating shift work and compared their health records to women who had worked normal hours, following the women through 18-20 years of their working lives.  They used for the study women aged 42 to 67 who did at least three night shifts in the month, as well as doing normal day work shifts.

They found women who did shift work tended to smoke more and put on weight, but more seriously, they found the women’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes began to increase.

Slight at around 5% after one or two years of shift work, it increased the longer the women worked shifts.  Therefore, those who had worked shifts for three years had around a 20% increased risk, while those who had done 20 years or more on nights had up to 60% increased risk.

With around one fifth of all workers doing some kind of shift work, this is serious news.  However, the team stressed more research is needed to identify exactly where the problem lies.

Working shifts may be associated with diabetes simply because the disruption of normal eating, sleeping and exercise patterns causes the weight gain that is known to contribute to the disease.  Women working at night are in no mood to prepare a good healthy meal when they get home, and may just grab a sandwich or sugary snack before falling into bed.  They also miss the chance to exercise, as many will not be prepared to lose sleep to attend a gym or go out walking, cycling, or running.  In addition, in the long watches of the night the women may ease boredom, stress or loneliness by snacking.  Increased tendency to smoke was also reported as one of the side effects of shift work, which is clearly not a particularly healthy lifestyle.

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