We’ve long known sleep is critical to heart health and that shift work taxes your health—but I was surprised to learn just how many of us are at risk. According to the National Sleep Foundation, anyone not working just nine-to-five is considered a “shift worker.”
That came as a shock to me since as an MD I worked crazy hours, and when I was able to work 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and slept all night I considered myself blessed to be working normal hours. But by the definition used in this study, even those hours were considered “shift work.” So this means that even if you’re a yoga instructor teaching early morning classes, or get up early to watch a grandchild every day, researchers consider you a shift worker.
The trouble with shift work is that it disrupts your body’s normal sleep-wake cycle, throwing every system in your body out of balance. Research has shown that those working evening, night, and split or rotating shifts have a 40% increased risk of coronary artery disease and are 23% more likely to have a heart attack. Plus, working the night shift ups your chances of suffering from a coronary event to 41%.
We also now have data from the largest shift worker study even completed, conducted by Dr. Daniel G. Hackman at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He and his researchers looked at more than two million people who participated in over 34 previous observational studies. What they found is that 17,350 of those participants had some sort of cardiac event, including 6,600 who had a heart attack and 1,850 who suffered ischemic strokes.
Even when the researchers factored in other lifestyle variables including exercise and poor eating habits, the elevated risk for heart attack among shift workers remained. But on the lighter side, shift workers were no more likely to die from any cause than those working traditional nine-to-five hours.
If shift work is a way of life for you, the good news is you can protect yourself:
- Get enough sleep and plenty of exercise.
- Avoid things that disrupt sleep. Remove all electronics from your sleeping area. Plus, drink a cup of tea that contains valerian or chamomile, both of which help to make you drowsy.
- Consider getting an Earthing pad for your bed, which helps to lower blood pressure and inflammation and promote sleep.
- Avoid easy-to-grab convenience foods and follow a heart-healthy diet.
- Know and address your heart disease risk factors, and get regular screenings and medical followup to address them.
Now it’s your turn: Have you ever experienced shift work?