How Shift Work Really Impacts Your Health

Shift work — working hours different than the standard 9 to 5 — can have major implications on a person's health. The Sleep Foundation notes that around 16 percent of Americans work "non-traditional" hours, which can include the standard night shift, but also early mornings, and rotating shifts. There are thousands of jobs that operate outside of standard office hours, from overnight hospital workers to early morning bakers to firemen on rotating shifts. But there may be some drawbacks to working strange hours. Here's how those jobs are changing your health, plus how to stay healthy if you do find yourself working odd hours. 

First, jobs like these impact a person's natural circadian rhythm, which typically has people going to sleep while it's dark out and staying awake and working while it's light out. For overnight workers who sleep during the day, circadian rhythm sleep disorder is common. And insomnia and other sleep disturbances are common in all types of shift work, since people working nontraditional hours often end up sleeping less than the recommended seven to nine hours, or when they do sleep, they're fighting against their body's natural rhythms. This can be exacerbated when shifts change (in the case of nurses, for instance, who may work several long shifts then have multiple days off), according to the Sleep Foundation.

How else can shift work hurt a person's health?

Shift work can be so detrimental that the World Health Organization has categorized shift work as a potential cause of cancer thanks to how it effects circadian rhythms. "The key problem is we have this internal biological clock which is set to the external world as a result of exposure of the light/dark cycle," Russell Foster, a sleep expert and Oxford University professor, told the BBC. He adds that night shift workers are more prone to type 2 diabetes, a lowered immune system due to stress, and heart disease.

It's also significantly harder to eat healthy while working the night shift: The BBC reports that carbohydrate consumption can increase by nearly 40 percent after just a few days of restricted sleep. That puts shift workers at risk of developing metabolic conditions, but also contending with obesity.

The mental side is equally difficult: Shift workers are more prone to depression, and may also experience higher rates of loneliness since their jobs make normal meetups like happy hours and coffee dates more difficult (via WebMD).

But don't panic: Focusing on a healthy lifestyle outside of work, in terms of nutrition, sleep hygiene, exercise, and making time for friends and family can help mitigate the problems that arise from shift work. "I don't think people need to be so alarmed by these studies that they rush out and quit their jobs. They should just be alert to the possible risks," Frank Scheer Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, told WebMD.