April 12, 2022

Shifty Shifts—Slippery Slope!

You may be able to reduce the severity of the impact of shift work on your health and well­being.

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

Q: We started to work two-month rotating shifts during the first pandemic surge. My family has recently complained that I’m increasingly irritable, moody, and negative. My weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels are creeping up too, and I’m always tired. Could this be because of the shifts?

A: You’ll need a comprehensive clinical evalu­ation to assess what else might be going on. We recommend you talk to your doctor for a defin­itive answer. That said, shift work affects stress levels, sleep quality, and overall health because of disruption of biological rhythms and may indeed contribute to your situation.

Our brain, other organs, and even our cells have biological clocks that strongly influence—in a rhythmic pattern—the way our bodies function and how we behave. Internal clocks regulate our hormones, our immune system, our digestion, and much more. These clocks are encoded in our genetic material, and the rhythms they produce provide special windows of time that are best suited for the various types of activities that we engage in daily (such as mealtimes and bedtime), and even the optimal timing for medications and radiation therapy on cancer.

The predominant body rhythm cycles every 24 hours and 11 minutes, or almost a day; hence, circa (almost) dian (day). It produces predictable changes such as reduced blood pressure during night-time sleep and a rapid rise to daytime blood pressure levels starting around 6:00 a.m. It’s not coincidental that the risk of a stroke or heart attack is highest between 6:00 a.m. and noon!

Our brain’s performance also varies with the time of day, dipping, between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. in otherwise normal people, below the levels of someone legally drunk. We are naturally more prone to accidents and errors during those hours. The cycle disrupted by sleep deprivation, rapid travel across time zones (jet lag), and shift work has consequences (see table). Consistent bedtimes, wake­up times, and mealtimes diminish bio­ rhythm disruption and facilitate realignment.

Your situation may not permit avoidance of shift work. We recognize that there are some jobs that are needed to sustain our modern, 24/7 way of life. You may, however, be able to reduce the severity of the impact of shift work on your health and well­being. The most powerful resynchronizers include consistent, routine mealtimes, bedtimes, exercise, and, most important, sunlight exposure.

Sleeping in the dark and avoiding post-shift light, alcohol, caffeine, sedatives, and screen ­monitor light within 90 minutes of bedtime all help to realign your body functions with your biorhythms. Keeping a consistent schedule, applied even on your days off, will help your body’s adjustment, but frequent shift changes are not optimal.

Individually tailored, carefully and prayerfully crafted, wholistic lifestyle intervention will help you (and your co-workers) reduce your physical, psychological, and even your spiritual risks.

Short-term DisruptionLong-term Shift Work
Decreased:Increased Risk:
CreativityNoncommunicable diseases
Empathy/compassionDiabetes, hypertension, heart disease
Information processingObesity
Decision-making abilityDementia, anxiety, depression, “fog”
Micro-sleepsImmune function
ImpulsivityPsychological resilience

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.

Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.