How to shift the heart disease, diabetes and stroke risk of shift work

My father died of Parkinson’s disease. For more than thirty years prior to his death, he worked nights, driving a newspaper delivery truck.

While the research I’ve read does not directly implicate shift work as a risk factor for Parkinson’s, it still makes me wonder whether a lifetime of “off the grid” sleep patterns had anything to do with his neurological deterioration.

After all, research shows that shift workers are at increased risk of metabolic syndrome. And at least three studies have connected this syndrome to Parkinson’s disease.

These are just my personal “wonders” connected to the latest research on shift work and the risk of disease.

Perhaps you or someone you love works irregular hours. If so, the findings we’re going to talk about here could truly be lifesaving…

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Shift work can be deadly

In a clinical review of prior research published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, researchers from Touro University found consistent evidence that shift-workers are at a significantly higher risk for sleep disorders and metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions which increases a person’s risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

Shift work typically takes place outside of the hours of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. But why would that impact a person’s health so drastically?

It starts with hormonal changes that affect their health.

Once a person’s sleep-wake cycle (known as their circadian rhythm) is disrupted, they experience increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), ghrelin (a hunger and fat storage hormone), and insulin (the hormone that balances blood sugar), and decreased levels of serotonin (the sleep hormone).

This means more stress, hunger, blood sugar spikes and dives, and less sleep. You can see why, over time, this becomes a problem.

The buildup of hormonal changes prompts the development of metabolic syndrome. In fact, one study found that nine percent of night shift nurses developed metabolic syndrome, compared to only 1.8 percent of day shift nurses.

And other studies have noted that the more years a person has done shift work, the greater their risk of metabolic syndrome and related diseases — like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

How to shift your risk

Kshma Kulkarni, the lead author of the study, says that there are steps you can take to avoid serious health issues associated with shift work.

Sleep. Just because you work at night doesn’t mean you can’t work towards keeping a consistent sleep schedule.

If you can, avoid rotating shifts. Try and work the same hours each night.

Employers can help by scheduling shifts to start before midnight and last no more than eleven hours This will help workers stabilize their new circadian rhythms.

To get the most out of your time in bed, follow these tips:

  • Sleep in a seven- to eight-hour block every 24 hours. Ideally, this will be at the same time each day.
  • Schedule your main block of sleep as close to evening or night as possible to minimize circadian disruption
  • Take an additional nap for 20 to 120 minutes earlier in the day to prevent fatigue.

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Light exposure. During your work shifts, try to increase your light exposure. If your employer is willing, they can install high-intensity lights to simulate daytime exposure. This will help you adapt to your new circadian rhythm.

When you come off your shift, it’s time to minimize light exposure, especially exposure to the blue light of television and computer screens, which can delay the production of melatonin.

Diet and exercise. For people already at higher risk for metabolic syndrome, diet is critical, says Kulkami.

Unfortunately, many shift workers tend to eat snacks high in sugar and saturated fat and to eat fewer vegetables. They’re also more likely to skip meals.

If you’re a shift worker, Kulkami recommends the following to improve your nutrition:

  • Eat three meals a day at close to the same time each day. Try to eat more calories earlier in your awake time.
  • Make sure you have protein and vegetables at every meal.
  • If you can, take regular breaks during your shift, and eat a nutritious snack — like walnuts or almonds and a little dark chocolate.

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  1. Shift workers at risk for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes — EurekAlert
  2. Shift Workers at Risk for Metabolic SyndromeThe Journal of the American Osteopathic Association
  3. Metabolic Syndrome & Increased Parkinson’s Disease Risk — Parkinson’s Foundation
Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.