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  • About one-fifth of the American workforce work nights, at least on occasion, and working the night shift is one of the fastest ways to disrupt your internal body clock and health
  • Health effects associated with disrupted circadian rhythms are related to insulin resistance and include obesity, diabetes, heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer
  • It may be better to work night shift for longer stretches of time rather than frequently rotating between day and night shift. Other strategies that may help curtail the risks associated with night shift work are also discussed
 

Your Brain Needs Sleep - How to Counteract the Ill Effects of Working the Night Shift

November 10, 2016 | 214,477 views
| Available in EspañolDisponible en Español

By Dr. Mercola

On my previous articles that discussed night shift workers many asked in the comment section below what they should do if they have to work night shift. Well this article addresses those concerns and should be helpful for you even if you don't work night shifts.

First, let's review how working night shifts damages your biology; then we will explore the ways to minimize that impact.

Science has clearly established the importance of keeping your internal body clock in sync with the rising and setting sun. Unfortunately, about one-fifth of the American workforce work nights, at least on occasion, and working the night shift is one of the fastest ways to disrupt your body clock.

The ramifications of such disruption can be significant, with research showing disrupted sleep cycles contributing to:1

Obesity2 and type 2 diabetes

Decreased immune function3

Cardiovascular and heart disease4,5

Impaired brain function and emotional control,6,7 early cognitive decline and Alzheimer's 8

Cancer. A primary mechanism responsible for this effect is disrupted melatonin production, a hormone with both antioxidant and anti-cancer activity. Melatonin both inhibits the proliferation of cancer cells and triggers cancer cell apoptosis (self-destruction).

It also interferes with the new blood supply tumors require for their rapid growth (angiogenesis). A number of studies have shown that night shift workers are at heightened risk of cancer for this reason.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) even lists night shifts as "probably carcinogenic."9 Unfortunately, employers have not caught on to this yet, and few recognize the added risks placed on night shift employees.

Disrupted Circadian Cycle Unleashes Stress and Exacerbates Disease

Poor sleeping habits also tends to raise your levels of corticosterone, the stress hormone associated with road rage. When your body is under stress, it releases hormones that increase your heart rate and blood pressure.

Your muscles get tense, your digestive processes stop and certain brain centers are triggered, which alter your brain chemistry. Left unchecked, this stress response can also lead to a variety of health problems including but not limited to headaches, anxiety, depression and high blood pressure.

Circadian disruptions caused by lack of sleep or poor quality sleep may also exacerbate other serious and chronic diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, Multiple sclerosis (MS), gastrointestinal tract disorders and kidney disease, just to name a few. 

Working the Night Shift Significantly Increases Your Risk of Diabetes

In a 2011 study involving nurses, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health revealed that a woman's risk of type 2 diabetes rises according to how many years of night-shift work she has completed.

Working a night shift periodically for three years increased the nurses' diabetes risk by 20 percent. The risk increased with time, reaching nearly 60 percent after two decades of intermittent shift work. According to the authors:10

"The increase in type 2 diabetes risk associated with night shift work ranged from 5 percent in nurses who'd worked that schedule for one or two years to 58 percent in those who'd done so for at least 20 years."

The explanation for this effect goes back to your circadian rhythm and its biological impact, which includes:11

  • Release of metabolic hormones that regulate satiety and hunger. When sleep deprived, your body decreases production of leptin, the hormone that tells your brain there is no need for more food. At the same time, it increases levels of ghrelin, a hormone that triggers hunger.
  • Impaired blood-sugar metabolism, leading to insulin resistance and increased blood sugar levels, both of which are linked to diabetes.
  • Impaired ability of your pancreas to deliver insulin.
  • Disruptions or changes in body temperature, energy metabolism, cell cycles and behavioral cycles.

Consistent Night Shift Work Is Better Than Intermittent

Certainly the best option to avoid the damage and premature aging is to stop working night shifts, but I realize you may not be able to avoid night shifts once you've chosen a certain profession.

Remember, it is vital to understand that this kind of regular work schedule will ultimately seriously compromise your health and longevity, so you'd be wise to take extra precautions to counteract the ill effects.

In the featured video, Dr. James Hamblin, a senior editor at The Atlantic, discusses some of the options available to night shift workers.

While it's impossible to give a definitive answer that will apply to every person, as a general rule, if you must work nights, you're likely better off consistently working the night shift, opposed to working days and nights on a rotating schedule.

At least that allows you to establish a regular sleep-wake rhythm, even though your cycle is diametrically opposed to the natural light cycle. As noted by Hamblin:12

"Few studies actually compare long-term health effects among people who work some nights to people who work only nights, but the … principle of consistency should apply.

If you can manage to get your body into a 24-hour cycle, that's beneficial, even if it doesn't correspond perfectly with that of the sun …

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC], the additional risk of cancers in shift workers 'may be explained by the disruption of the circadian system that is caused by exposure to light at night.

This can alter sleep-activity patterns, suppress melatonin production and disregulate genes involved in tumor development.' But if you get into a consistent groove of night shifts, you should be able to manipulate light with blackout curtains and lamps …

Some employers think they're doing people a favor by saying you only have to work one week of nights every month. That's how we did it in the hospital. But maybe it would've been better to work three straight months every year."

Creating an Artificial Day-Night Environment

If you absolutely are unable to stop working night shifts then your best option is to always wear blue blocking glasses during the night and make sure that when you get up and it is night that you get some blue light exposure. The best blue light is from the sun as it is balanced. But obviously the sun is not up if you are getting up at night.

So I would suggest using a conventional clear incandescent bulb but also a cool white (blue enriched) LED bulb. You need both, not one or the other, as the LED will give you the blue and the incandescent the balancing red and near infrared spectrum. You will only need to use the bluish LED light for 15 to 30 minutes, following the recommendation described below. This will help you to establish your new "circadian" rhythm.

You might need to play with the number of bulbs you use, as up to 10,000 lux have been shown to be effective for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. My guess is that these doses are far too high if you are not treating SAD but trying to help your body to optimize all the systems necessary for performance during night shift.

Ideally, you should start with incandescent light immediately after getting up, thereby simulating sunrise. After half an hour or so you should add the cold white LED light, mimicking the sun´s ascent toward high noon. Once you feel the photonic energy boost, you can stop the LED use, since an overdose causes more damage than good: Bluish (LED) light generates excessive amounts of free radicals if not adequately balanced by red and near infrared light.  

After you finish your blue light exposure it would be wise to limit your further exposure to blue light. This means: only incandescent bulbs at home and if you go out of your home, avoid any additional exposure to LED or fluorescent bulbs by wearing your blue blocking glasses. While this process is far from ideal, it should mitigate the damage that most who are engaged in night shift work encounter. Remember your BEST choice is to stop night shift working and get full sunlight exposure in the daytime.

Remember that it will be virtually impossible to imitate the full-spectrum and brightness of natural sunlight, even with a high-quality UV lamp, cool white LED bulbs and bright incandescent lights. It's better than nothing, but by working nights, you are depriving yourself of a crucial component for health, namely natural sunlight.

The sun's rays are not only the catalyst that allows your skin to produce vitamin D; sunlight also plays a role in mitochondrial health, and is really important for healthy vision.

Orange Light Wakes You Up

The influence of varying wavelengths of light was demonstrated in a 2014 Belgian study.13 Orange light serves as a powerful “wake-up call” for your entire body. In your eye, there are photoreceptor cells that make a light-sensing pigment called melanopsin. This pigment plays an important role in directing your waking and sleeping cycles. My guess is that this works as there are some near infrared frequencies in the orange light. As reported by New Scientist:14

“To find out how melanopsin wakes up the brain, Gilles Vandewalle at the University of Liege, Belgium, and his team gave 16 people a 10-minute blast of blue or orange light while they performed a memory test in an fMRI scanner. They were then blindfolded for 70 minutes, before being retested under a green light.

People initially exposed to orange light had greater brain activity in several regions related to alertness and cognition when they were retested, compared with those pre-exposed to blue light. Vandewalle thinks that melanopsin is acting as a kind of switch, sending different signals to the brain depending on its state.

Orange light, which has the longer wavelength, is known to make the pigment more light-sensitive, but blue light has the opposite effect. Green light lies somewhere in the middle. The findings suggest that pre-exposure to orange light pushes the balance towards the more light-sensitive form of melanopsin, enhancing the response in the brain.”

Other Ways to Minimize Risks Associated With Night Shift Work

In addition to keeping as consistent a sleep schedule as possible, addressing the following factors may also help you curtail the adverse health effects of working the night shift:

  • Since night shift work largely prevents mid-day sun exposure needed for vitamin D production, measure your vitamin D, and maintain a healthy level of 40 to 70 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) by trying to get sun exposure during the day, or with an oral vitamin D3 supplement (along with vitamin K2).
  • Pay attention to other strategies that promote mitochondrial health, such as nutritional ketosis, fasting, exercise and nutritional supplements like coenzyme Q10, L-carnitine, D-ribose, magnesium, animal-based omega-3, B vitamins and alpha-lipoic acid (ALA). All of these factors are discussed in my previous interview with Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D.
  • Give serious attention to your lighting at home and at work. AVOID using light-emitting diode (LED) lighting, as this type of light may promote age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness, and exacerbate health problems rooted in mitochondrial dysfunction, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. If you haven't already seen it yet, you simply must watch my recent interview with Dr. Alexander Wunsch, "How LED Lighting May Compromise Your Health."

As explained by Wunsch, the vast majority of the energy your body needs to maintain systemic equilibrium actually comes from environmental infrared light exposure. The near-infrared range of light found not only in natural sunlight but also in incandescent light bulbs and halogens benefit your health in a number of important ways, including priming the cells in your retina for repair and regeneration.

Fluorescent LEDs emit primarily blue light, which reduces melatonin production in both your pineal gland and in your retina. In your retina, melatonin helps with regeneration, which is why LEDs are so harmful to your vision. Blue light also creates reactive oxygen species (ROS) that, when generated in excess, cause damage. So when using LEDs, you end up with increased damage and decreased repair and regeneration throughout your body, not just in your eyes.

LED light exposure that is not balanced with full sunlight loaded with the red parts of the spectrum is always damaging to your biology — just more so at night. Hence, if you're rarely ever exposed to sunlight due to night shift work, you really owe it to yourself to make sure you've got the healthiest artificial lighting possible. Employers really need to take this seriously as well.

How to Make Digital Screens Healthier

When it comes to computer screens, Wunsch suggests reducing the correlated color temperature down to 2,700 K — even during the day, not just at night. Many use f.lux to do this, but I have a great surprise for you as I have found a FAR better alternative that was created by Daniel, a 22-year-old Bulgarian programmer that Ben Greenfield introduced to me.

He is one of the rare people that already knew most of the information in this article. So he was using f.lux but was very frustrated with the controls. He created a massively superior alternative called Iris, available here. OLED screen technology is another development that may be better than conventional screens. As noted by Wunsch:

"[With] the OLEDs technology, I'm not sure if the color is really stable in every angle you can look at the display," Wunsch says. "But definitely, if you have the screen technology where black is really black, then you have less radiation coming into your eyes and the OLEDs technology is able to provide this.

So the high contrasts between the black and white, all the black areas in the thin-film-transistor (TFT) screen or the standard screen are not really black. They are also emitting shortwave radiation. The OLED screen only emits where you see light, where there is black on the screen, there is no light. This might be preferable as long as you have no problems with the [viewing] angle."

 Another Healthy Light Alternative

Candles are even a better light source than incandescent bulbs, as there is no electricity involved and is the light that our ancestors have used for many millennia so our bodies are already adapted to it. The only problem is that you need to be very careful about using just any old candle as most are toxic.

As you may or may not know, many candles available today are riddled with toxins, especially paraffin candles. Did you know that paraffin is a petroleum by-product created when crude oil is refined into gasoline? Further, a number of known carcinogens and toxins are added to the paraffin to increase burn stability, not including the potential for lead added to wicks, and soot invading your lungs.

To complicate matters, a lot of candles, both paraffin and soy, are corrupted with toxic dyes and fragrances; some soy candles are only partially soy with many other additives and/or use GMO soy. There seems to be a strange mindset that exposure to small amounts of toxins is OK, even though the exposure is exponential over time!

I’ve found non-GMO soy candles that are clean burning without harmful fumes or soot, that are grown in the U.S. and are both sustainable and renewable. These candles are completely free of dyes. All of the fragrances are body safe, phthalate- and paraben-free and contain no California prop 65 ingredients. The wicks are simply flat-braided and cotton-coated in a natural vegetable wax and self-trimming, which reduces carbon build-up.

Enjoying a Circle of Life Farms naturally good soy candle and following the simple burn instructions — located inside the candle lid — will give approximately 70+ hours of burn time. You can search online healthy candles, but if you like, you can use the ones I found at www.circleoflifefarms.com. This is not an affiliate link and I earn no commissions on these candles; I just thought you might benefit from the ones I now use in my home.

Tips to Optimize Your Sleep When Working the Night Shift

If you currently work nights, I would strongly suggest trying to switch your hours. If that's not possible, try to get on as regular a schedule as you can, so to avoid frequent switching back and forth between day and night shifts. This will at least give your body a chance to readjust in between. Also be sure to address the factors discussed above.

Next, to promote quality sleep during daylight hours, it's essential that you make your bedroom pitch-black, as exposure to light prevents the production of melatonin. Even the dim glow from your clock radio could be interfering with your ability to sleep and, more importantly, your long-term health and risk of developing cancer or other health problems. To get your room as dark as possible while you're sleeping, consider taking the following actions:

  • Install blackout drapes
  • Close your bedroom door if light comes through it; if light seeps in underneath your door, put a towel along the base
  • Get rid of your electric clock radio (or at least block its light while you're sleeping)
  • Avoid night lights of any kind
  • Keep all light sources off (even if you get up to go to the bathroom), including your computer and TV
  • Avoid any sources of electromagnetic radiation, i.e., all electrically driven appliances in your bedroom, especially when connected to the AC-operated main electricity. Electrical transformers, ballasts, WiFi-controlled light bulbs and smartphones produce dirty electricity and dirty electromagnetic radiation, which interferes with melatonin production.15

Avoid sleeping pills, as the side effects may cause more harm than good. Better alternatives include using the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), listening to a brainwave synchronization tape or trying a natural remedy that can help you relax without the side effects.

For even more helpful guidance on how to improve your sleep — whether you're working the night shift or not — please review my 33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep. If you're even slightly sleep-deprived I encourage you to implement some of these tips tonight, as high-quality sleep is one of the most important factors in your health and quality of life.

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