5 Strategies for Balancing Circadian Rhythms When You Work the Night Shift

Millions of Americans in service jobs, manufacturing, and cut-throat white collar careers are working late and long hours. Not to mention folks who are tending to families all hours of the day. Here, ways to ameliorate the potential health harms of going to work when the sun goes down.

Circadian Rhythms and Shift Work

If you’re pulling an all-nighter for school, staying up late to work or take care of a sick child, travelling across a few time zones, or had a bad night’s sleep, your circadian clock may be just as haywire as a night shift worker’s or someone who pulls a 12-hour shift then sleeps during the  day.

The health risks associated with being one of these shift workers have been known for decades. Shift workers are generally defined as employees who stay awake for more than three hours between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. for more than 50 days a year. Basically, any activity that disturbs your regular sleep and eating schedule—which should be at regular times—will cause circadian stress.

In a 1999 Scandinavian research review of 17 studies on night time and long shift work, researchers found that shift work increased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 40 percent.

In 2007, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research of Cancer classified night shift work as a potential carcinogen.

In a 2015 study of more than 3,000 shift workers, their late or long hours were linked to a significant decline in cognitive function. The longer the shift work persisted, the more negative the health concerns. This study also linked shift work to ulcers, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, reproductive difficulties, and metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, high cholesterol, and increased abdominal fat). 

Fast forward to 2021 and research has shown that the risk of taking late-night or long shifts can contribute to an increased risk of dementia.

How Late Nights and Long Shifts Can Hurt Us

Shift work causes a disconnect between the biological clocks that exist in every cell of our bodies. The slightest disturbance can create se circadian imbalances, and that those accumulated imbalances are linked to increased health risks, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to research.

To make matters worse, off-hours and long shift work not only affects the shift worker, it also affects the families of shift workers. In a study that reviewed 23 studies, 21 of the studies found a direct link between these types of shifts and developmental and behavioral concerns of children in those households. They also noted that the children of shift workers were also at greater risk for cognitive issues and obesity.

My point in this article is not to condemn night workers. There are risks, but many people don’t have a choice about when they work. I have written a handful of articles to help night worker mitigate those risks.

Does Your Lifestyle Have the Same Circadian Consequences as Shift Work?

In Dr Panda’s book, he describe six ways social and work habits can have the same effect as working long or late shifts. According to Dr. Panda, staying up late or travelling through times zones can have the same lingering circadian rhythm effects, impacting your immune system among other health concerns. This may explain what science called “leisure sickness,” where folks who travel for vacation end of getting sick when the return home.

Which type of “shift worker” are you?

1. Social Jet Lag: This affects 50 percent of the population. When you wake up two hours later on the weekends because you’ve been out late, this pushes breakfast, which is a primary circadian trigger, back by two hours and cause your digestive biological clocks to reset. In turn, your body has to abort the self-repair it engages in on a normal schedule each day.

2. Digital Jet Lag: When we communicate with friends and family in different time zones, we find ourselves on devices in the wee hours of the night, causing chronic shift work-like stress.

3. Shift Work Lifestyle: High school and college students, mothers, caregivers, and musicians all burn the midnight oil and regularly stay up past 10 p.m. making them all shift workers.

4. Classic Shift Workers: Fire fighters, police, health care givers, emergency responders, transportation works, restaurant staffs, and many more all are often required to work into the night, resulting is disturbed sleep.

5. Travel Jet Lag: Crossing two or more times zones with air travel affects some four million people a day and causes a significant amount of circadian stress.

6. Seasonal Disruption: In Ayurveda, the seasonal changes are critical times for maintaining optimal health. Disease is said to set in when the change of seasons is not accompanied by an appropriate shift in diet and lifestyle. This is most challenging in the extreme northern or southern latitudes that force folks to endure extremely dark winters and extremely light summers.