As most Americans wind down for bed, 15 million people are just clocking into work.
These hospital workers, emergency responders, factory operators, and others are among the 20 percent of the world’s population who do shift work.
Their different sleep-wake cycle elevates their risk for numerous health disorders, including diabetes, heart attacks, cancer and strokes.
Scientists from Texas A&M University found the adverse effects of shift work can be long-lasting, even after returning to a normal schedule.
The research is published in Neurobiology of Sleep and Circadian Rhythms and was conducted by David Earnest et al.
Shift work, especially rotating shift work, confuses our body clocks and that has important ramifications in terms of our health and well-being and connection to human disease.
When our internal body clocks are synchronized properly, they coordinate all our biological processes to occur at the right time of day or night.
When our body clocks are misaligned, whether through shift work or other disruptions, that provides for changes in physiology, biochemical processes and various behaviors.
In the study, the team found that the health impacts of shift work do, indeed, persist over time.
The sleep-wake cycles of subjects on shift work schedules never truly returned to normal, even after subsequent exposure to a regular schedule.
Compared to controls maintained on a regular day-night cycle throughout the study, they displayed persistent alterations of their sleep-wake rhythms, with periods of abnormal activity when sleep would have normally occurred.
When they suffered strokes, their outcomes were again much worse than the control group, except females, who had more severe functional deficits and higher mortality than the males.
The researchers also found increased levels of inflammatory mediators from the gut in subjects exposed to a shift work schedule.
The results of this study could eventually lead to the development of interventions that block the adverse effects of the disrupted body clock.
In the meantime, shift workers can improve the care of their internal body clocks by trying to maintain a regular schedule as much as possible and avoiding a diet high in fat, which can cause inflammation and also alter the timing of circadian rhythms.
To avoid some of these health hazards, the team says the best approach is to maintain a regular schedule of awake time, sleep time, and mealtimes that don’t vary drastically from day to day.
In addition, avoid the usual heart risk behaviors like eating a high-fat diet, not getting enough physical activity, drinking too much alcohol, and smoking.
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