Shift work isn’t easy on the body or the mind. Numerous studies link shift work, particularly rotating, evening and overnight shifts, with a higher risk of a broad range of chronic health conditions, diseases and mental health issues, including mood disorders and cognitive impairments.
While not all of the mechanisms involved in this higher risk are fully understood, there is a great deal of promising research being done. Recent research points to the role of meal timing in helping to mitigate those heightened health risks, suggesting that daytime meals may reduce health risks for shift workers.
Shift Work Linked to Increased Health Risks
Professor David Earnest, of the Texas A and M University College of Medicine, points to the disruption of the circadian rhythm and the accompanying misalignment of body clocks that shift workers experience as a reason for increased health risks for shift workers. Those timing mechanisms help to regulate countless biological processes, including metabolic processes and hormone production and release. With highly complex systems made up of equally complex processes, such as those at work within us, disruptions are clearly going to have consequences. According to researchers, those consequences can include being more vulnerable to disease and other health-impacting conditions.
Humans are designed to be active during the day and to rest at night. That’s how we lived during the thousands upon thousands of years before our modern, artificially lit era. Our bodily systems evolved to work with this arrangement, with certain processes taking place at certain times — some during our active phase, others during our resting phase.
Working during our resting phase causes disorder. We eat at different times, sleep at different times and often do both poorly. Diet and sleep have long been known to be tightly linked to health and mental well-being.
How Daytime Meals May Reduce Health Risks
Shift workers have been shown by numerous studies to be more likely to be overweight or obese and to have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other metabolic system disorders, as well as many other health problems. Shift workers are typically living outside of the evolutionary norm for humans — daytime activity and nighttime rest — and due to their work schedules, frequently eat at night and sleep during the day. Researchers have found that nighttime eating is associated with higher glucose levels, a risk factor for diabetes.
An international team of researchers that included researchers from Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Germany’s University of Cologne recently conducted a study that showed that daytime meals could help reduce the health risks posed by shift work. The study was small, involving 19 participants, but the results were certainly intriguing. The group of study subjects was made up of 12 men and seven women, all described as young and healthy.
The study participants were all engaged in a pre-study conditioning routine to determine baseline circadian rhythms. That routine also involved sets of protocols to separate the influence of each individual’s internal baseline circadian rhythm from the impact of other circadian rhythm impacting factors. Once that preparatory process was complete, the study participants were ready for their 14-day controlled laboratory protocol which was set up to mirror night work living conditions.
The study participants were split into two groups, with one group eating at times typical of the average night shift worker and the other limiting their meals to daytime hours. The group that ate at night while living on a night shift worker schedule saw an average glucose level increase of 6.4 percent. The simulated night shift worker group that ate only during the day did not experience a glucose level increase.
According to the researchers, that increase in glucose level is probably linked to the misalignment of the circadian rhythm via the mistiming in the feeding and fasting cycle. Basically, the problem lies in eating at the wrong time in relation to how our bodies evolved over thousands of years to function. This study suggests that eating at the right time for the body can help mitigate some of the risk associated with shift work, such as helping to prevent elevated glucose levels. Elevated glucose levels heighten the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Those same factors – daytime eating versus nighttime eating and body clock misalignment – were also examined in relation to mood in night shift workers. Those eating at night during their period of simulated night shift work experienced a 16.1 percent increase in anxiety symptoms and a 26.2 percent increase in depression symptoms. Those eating during the day did not experience this increase.
The Takeaway – Control the Factors You Can
Many of us are shift workers, something unlikely to change in the near future. After all, some of our most essential careers paths – health care, first responders and law enforcement – require shift work to provide vital services day and night.
There are many factors involved in maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm, such as keeping consistent sleep and wake times, meal timing, mindful light exposure, stress management, getting enough physical activity and more. Control as many of these factors as you can. You may have to work night shifts, but you can, for example, choose a healthy diet and stay physically active. Making small changes can go a long way to reducing the health risks associated with shift work.