More than ever before, companies have adopted an around-the-clock operational style, desperately trying to stay available for increasingly demanding, globally oriented customers. But working second or third shift for these businesses--defined as the 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. and 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. shifts--can translate to true grossness that research proves isn't all in your head.
Melatonin and Your Circadian Rhythm
Your body has a natural, internal "clock"--your circadian rhythm--that dictates when you should be awake and when you should sleep. This connects closely to hormones. More specifically, your body produces melatonin to make you drowsy and adrenaline to make you alert. The kicker is that the body's production of melatonin is light sensitive, with a decrease in light necessary to stimulate creation of the hormone. When you work second or third shift, your exposure to light is different from what it would be if you worked a regular shift, and subsequently, your body ends up producing less melatonin and your circadian rhythm gets thrown out of whack.
The Effects of an Upset Clock
In addition to regulating sleep, your circadian rhythm connects to the schedule of other processes, such as eating and regulating body temperature. Furthermore, melatonin plays a role in controlling other hormones. The consequences of an upset circadian rhythm thus are substantial, potentially causing problems with every physiological system. Increased cancer risk, lowered immunity, metabolic issues and obesity, gastrointestinal conditions, diabetes, and decreased cognitive function are just some of what you can experience when a nonregular shift interrupts your body clock.
And those are just the physical considerations. Working second or third shift can be detrimental to your mood and social success, too. The lack of sufficient, high-quality rest that comes with disrupted melatonin production can mean your body produces more cortisol, a stress hormone that can make you anxious, and becomes desensitized to serotonin, a hormone connected to feelings of pleasure. At the same time, you don't have as much of a chance to interact with others, as you need to rest when they're active. That's bad news because interaction triggers the release of oxytocin (a.k.a. the cuddle hormone), both by physical stimulation and the complex interplay of so-called mirror neurons in the brain. Without as much oxytocin, it's harder to feel close to anybody.
Getting Rid of Second- and Third-Shift Crumminess
You have a few options to stay healthy and reduce the negative ramifications of a nonregular schedule. Ask your boss not to teeter-totter you back and forth from days to nights. Invest in options like blackout curtains to keep your sleep area as dark as you can, and talk to your doctor about options such as melatonin supplements and light lamps. Nap before you work so you're not driving home when your body's signal to sleep is strongest, and don't use caffeine.