Researchers say daytime meals could reduce the risks associated with night shifts.

August 15, 2022

Shift employment has frequently been connected to a higher prevalence of diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. However, a recent study published in Science Advances contends that spreading out meals could help to reduce such dangers.

About the Study

A 14-day procedure that mimicked night work settings was randomly allocated to 19 healthy young men and women who were recruited by the researchers. In one group, participants ate in the evening in imitation of an overnight shift worker's regular mealtime pattern. The individuals in the latter group had better-regulated glucose levels compared to those who only ate during the day, suggesting that eating at night may interfere with your circadian cycle. The other group only ate during the day. Your metabolism is greatly impacted when your circadian rhythm is disrupted. The time of their meals may be further disrupting their circadian rhythm, which is already at risk in shift workers.

"The takeaway is that meal timing could be used as a countermeasure against the negative effects of disrupted circadian rhythm, as well as impaired glucose tolerance," says study lead Frank A. J. L. Scheer, PhD, director of the medical chronobiology program at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston.

Dr. Scheer adds that the trial's restricted sample size notwithstanding, the outcomes are encouraging. Stronger suggestions for shift employees may result from more research on a bigger sample of shift workers, he claims.

Night Shift Effects

Defined as working after the start of the day at 7 a.m. Shift labor can encompass a variety of jobs, such as working in a warehouse or finishing industrial tasks. Shift employment can involve working in the evenings, overnight, or on a particularly lengthy shift that extends way over 8 hours. In addition to working shifts, firefighters, ambulance drivers, and police officers do as well. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shift workers in the U.S. number roughly 15.5 million.

Given the variety of risks connected with shift employment, more methods are required to address the health issues of these people. Variability in sleep, eating, and rest can be particularly difficult on mental health. In addition to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, other conditions that can be linked to this type of work include obesity, high blood pressure, peptic ulcers, sleep disorders, as well as mood disorders like depression and anxiety. For instance, a study published in npj Digital Medicine on more than 2,000 interns in a training program for physicians discovered that those with varied sleep habits were more likely to report lower daily mood ratings and score higher on standardized depression symptom questionnaires. This was comparable to individuals who received less.

Bigger Problems

As a sleep and stress researcher who primarily studies shift workers, Arne Lowden, PhD, at the Stress Research Institute at the University of Stockholm in Sweden, says that diet quality and timing matter. He adds that while some of the risks related to shift work are likely connected to irregular eating times, that is not the only factor at play. Other elements, such as disturbed circadian rhythms, sleep debt, inactivity, insufficient rest time, and psychological stress, may also be at play.

"There are many difficulties when it comes to dietary recommendations for shift workers," he says. "For example, eating at night might improve well-being but simultaneously impair metabolism. That said, there are some strategies that may be helpful."

Tactics that may lower shift work risks include:

  • Eating breakfast before day sleep to avoid waking up due to hunger
  • Sticking as closely as possible to a normal day and night pattern of food intake
  • Avoiding over-reliance on convenience foods, high-carbohydrate foods, and sugary treats during a shift
  • Getting regular exercise when not working
  • Maintaining good sleep hygiene as much as possible, such as creating a bedtime ritual even if you sleep during the day

Dr. Lowden adds that it is important for individuals to experiment with better strategies, but notes that employers also need to recognize the importance of these habits for a healthier workforce.

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