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Newsflash: Your body never adapts to working the night shift

We already know that long term shift work harms sleep.

Working the night shift over a long period of time also comes with a number of health risks including diabetes, heart disease and even cancer [1].

One study has found that working shifts for 10 years can age the brain by an extra six and a half years - and that it takes five years to reverse these effects once an individual stops working shifts [2].

It was often thought that as long as a night worker develops a regular sleep/wake schedule, their body will adapt to the change.

However, a range of studies have found that this is not the case.

Some researchers argue that starting work at 4am has the same effect on your ability to process information as drinking alcohol.

The fact of the matter is that our body clocks run on a pre-programmed, genetic pattern that has evolved from our time as cave dwellers. We can't force it to change as easily as we'd like to think.

So what can be done if you're a shift worker? Besides quitting and working a regular schedule, try to avoid rotating shifts. Stick to either days or nights - and try to get two consecutive days off each week.

Unfortunately the only other alternative is crossing your fingers that a newly discovered part of our brains (the ventral lateral pre-optic nuclei) that's thought to control our sleep cycles can eventually be manipulated [3].

Until then, if you're a regular shift worker you will always be fighting your body's natural sleep/wake cycle (and living with the consequences).


[1] IARC Scientific Publications (PDF)
[2] Occupational and Environmental Medicine
[3] Neuroscience

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Last updated: March 28, 2016

This Article Was Written By

Martin Reed

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