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Shift Work


Long gone are the days of "regular business hours. We now live in a 24-hour world where convenience stores never close and TV stations never stop broadcasting.

Long gone are the days of "regular business hours." We now live in a 24-hour world where convenience stores never close and TV stations never stop broadcasting. Thanks to our increasing demand for products and services, shift work is becoming common in the modern workplace.

Shift work is both physically and emotionally stressful. And no one knows that better than shift workers like Betty, a 32-year-old nurse. Betty's story is not unlike the stories of thousands of others suffering the harmful effects of long-term shift work.

Betty began working as a nurse in 1999. With two young daughters to support, she and her husband, Rob, depended on both of their incomes to make ends meet. Betty had no choice but to deal with her frequently changing schedule, which often rotated between day and night shifts. The initial adjustment period was rough, but she got through it and believed that the worst was over.

Eight months later, however, Betty's erratic schedule took its toll. She was depressed and irritable. She fought with her husband constantly and had difficulty concentrating at work. She had trouble sleeping and rarely felt like eating. She was often constipated and took antacids throughout the day to dull the constant pain of indigestion. She was frequently sick with colds or flu and even her reflexes seemed to be slowed. Betty's condition became so bad that she feared for her long-term health, so she finally made time to see a doctor.

Shift Lag

After discussing her symptoms and undergoing a thorough exam to rule out other possible causes, Betty was diagnosed with "shift lag," or shift work desynchronosis. Shift lag is caused by changes in circadian rhythms, the body's timing system. It regulates most bodily functions, telling your body when to sleep and when to wake. When your work schedule forces you to be awake when your body thinks you should be asleep, problems arise. Those over 40 are particularly vulnerable to shift lag.

Although most people overcome the initial symptoms of shift lag if given time to adjust, there are serious long-term concerns. Numerous studies have linked long-term shift work, particularly night shifts, to increased incidents of mental illness, breast cancer, colon cancer, heart disease, digestive disorders, miscarriages, premature births, and low birth weights. Inadequate sleep and poor diet are believed to be major contributors as they weaken the body, making it less able to cope with stress and fight off illness.

Sleep Soundly

To ease the symptoms associated with shift lag and help maintain her overall health, Betty's doctor recommended she do more to ensure good quality sleep.

  • Develop a sleep routine read a book, drink warm milk, or listen to music - that tells your body it's bedtime.
  • Make your bedroom as dark as possible.
  • Nap. It will help you maintain alertness and top up your sleep hours. But don't nap for more than two hours or you risk confusing the body.
  • Tailor meals appropriately for your schedule, eating low-fat carbs to help you sleep and lean proteins to help you stay awake.
  • Limit caffeine intake.
  • Melatonin, a natural human hormone, is believed by some researchers to aid in sleep and decrease the severity of symptoms associated with shift work. Melatonin was approved as a natural health product by Health Canada's Natural Products Directorate and, although it is not yet approved for sale in Canada, it is apparently expected to be on the shelves soon.

To counter the physical effects of shift work and reduce the likelihood of serious illness, Betty's doctor also suggested she take extra care to support her immune system. Start by making dietary changes. Eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and use garlic, onions, and mushrooms as food seasonings; all are known to boost the immune system. Include monounsaturated fats from nuts, olive oil, and avocados, which aid in the formation of immunoglobulin, an essential component of a healthy immune system.

Sleep Supplements

In conjunction with a healthy diet, supplements can improve your immune health. Omega-3 fatty acids, available in supplement form and in cold-water fish like salmon and tuna, are particularly important to a healthy immune system.

Bee pollen, a rich dietary source of zinc, calcium, magnesium, and iron, helps the immune system by increasing the number of white and red blood cells. Long-term use is said to increase both physical and mental abilities. Bee pollen has also been shown to inhibit the development of harmful bacteria. Because of the range of bee products available and the inferior quality of some imported bee pollens (due to heat processing), you should speak to a holistic health professional to select the best product.

Echinacea is another powerful immune booster, known for its antibacterial and antiviral properties. It is available as a liquid, capsule, or soothing throat drops. Studies have found echinacea to be a safe and effective way to enhance immunity both before and during times of illness; however, to avoid loss of benefits, restrict continual use to periods of no longer than 10 days.

Betty's doctor also explained that some of her symptoms could be caused by her lack of exposure to natural light. Sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D, necessary for calcium absorption and overall health. Workers with limited exposure to sunlight may need to supplement with vitamin D.

Today, thanks to the advice of her doctor and holistic health professionals, Betty is doing better. Although she still works rotating shifts, her symptoms have lessened and she is sleeping better. Shift work is still hard but she is now able to enjoy her time off.



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