Study: Late shift can ruin sleep, cause weight gain, diabetes

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In difficult economic times most people take the job they can get. People who swore they would never toil in lower paid jobs have for the past few years been forced to choose between work that would make Mike from “Dirty Jobs” turn his nose or work hours not of their choosing. Frequently that means late nights or what some call the dreaded third shift, that can be a welcome chance to pay bills and put food on the table.

Jobs hazardous to our health: late night shift

Now, a new study reveals that late night work (or the late night shift), which can wreak havoc with sleep patterns, family life and can actually be harmful to your health. In fact, the research shows that late night work and changing sleep patterns can, in reality, lead to diabetes and obesity.

The issue revolves around changes taking place in something called circadian rhythm, best explained as your body’s internal biological clock. People who frequently travel internationally are also prone to similar disruptions and, like night workers, vulnerable to weight gain and diabetes.

Study on late shift work on health

In the study, published online in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital created a strictly controlled environment for 21 healthy subjects and kept them on a regimen that included a constant diet and scheduled activities. Just prior to the study, the volunteers spent three weeks getting adequate sleep at home.

Then, in the study’s controlled environment, for the next three weeks they slept only 5.6 hours each 24-hour period. To make matters worse—or, if you will, more realistic—the narrowed sleep begun four hours later each subsequent day. The idea was to closely model the sleep patterns experienced by rotating shift workers or jet-setting travelers. After that, the subjects spent the next nine days enjoying what most would call adequate sleep at night.

late shift

Results on late night shift on health

Researchers monitoring the participants’ post-meal plasma glucose levels over the three weeks of circadian disruption (aka, a broken body clock) found that those readings jumped to levels commonly seen in prediabetic patients. What is more, the subjects experienced an 8 percent drop in their resting metabolic rate, a measurement that would ordinarily result, assuming unchanged activity or food intake, in as much as a 12-pound weight increase over the course of a year.

Once the participants returned to their accustomed circadian rhythm sleep patterns both their elevated blood glucose levels and diminished resting metabolic rates returned to normal, demonstrating that the interrupted sleep and sometimes chaotic lifestyle were the prime cause of the harmful effects, not to mention correctable.

“We think these results support the findings from studies showing that, in people with a prediabetic condition, shift workers who stay awake at night are much more likely to progress to full-on diabetes than day workers,” the study’s lead author, Orfeu M. Buxton, PhD, a neuroscientist at Brigham and Women’s, said in a release.

“Since night workers often have a hard time sleeping during the day, they can face both circadian disruption working at night and insufficient sleep during the day. The evidence is clear that getting enough sleep is important for health, and that sleep should be at night for best effect.”

Group seeks to guide late-night workers

While the study is new, the challenges faced by late-night workers are not. A 29-year-old organization known as Working Nights, in fact, seeks to improve work-life balance for the more than 25 million people in the U.S. and 600 million workers globally who have jobs outside the mainstream, including working the late shift. They say that armed with increased awareness, employees, their families and the organizations they work for will benefit from improved health, lower healthcare costs and fewer safety incidents.

With Hispanic workers in mind, Working Nights has since 2010 published the Working Nights Spanish calendar which is designed to allow the 78 percent of Hispanics who report they speak Spanish at home to reinforce their efforts to improve health and safety as a family unit (although Working Night also points out that half of these report that they speak English well). The calendar includes color-coded stickers to help workers and their families manage their day-to-day lives, encouraging them to stay motivated and maintain a positive attitude.

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