As a shift worker plagued by exhaustion, I’m pretty sure you will remember a time when you experienced digestive discomfort whether that’s in the form of bloating, stomach pain or nausea, and it was most likely during a night shift, or soon after getting up for an early shift.
But why is that?
Well its because lack of sleep or sleep disruption, is essentially a form of stress, and stress plays a huge role in digestion and bowel function.
Essentially nerves to the bowel get affected by stress, which can impair nutrient absorption leading to poor bowel function.
Whenever the body is under stress or faced with a stressful situation, (whether it be real or perceived as real) digestion no longer becomes a priority. This leads to a reduction in gut motility or muscle contractions along the digestive tract; less saliva being produced in the mouth; along with a reduction in gastric acid secretion in the stomach which in turn, impairs the digestion of our food.
Before I set out on this journey of studying Nutrition, I was fairly adamant (actually my husband would say stubborn), that all we really needed to be healthy was to consume a diet which encompassed a variety of whole foods, void of chemicals and pesticides.
Kind of simple really.
However as I embark on my final year of this degree, and after spending close to 2 years reading peer reviewed research studies on shift workers, I have to admit my views on this have changed – particularly if you happen to work shift work.
My reasons for this are many, some of which include the following:
- How many of us really eat healthy diets? If you work 24/7, chances are you often feel too tired to cook and prepare foods that are packed with nutritional punch. A bowl of pasta or a slice of toast can often appear on the dining table of many a shift worker who comes home after work, too tired to do anything except pop a slice of bread into the toaster or maybe boil some water if we’re lucky!
- The saying “we are what we eat” is true to a degree, but we’re also what we absorb, and for many of us, this is where shift workers are a little more vulnerable to those who work 9-5. This is because our meal times differ to the normal circadian phases of gastrointestinal functions (e.g. gastric, bile and pancreatic secretions, enzyme activity, intestinal motility, rate of absorption of nutrients, hunger and satiety hormones etc.) which often leads to malabsorption of nutrients. This malabsorption can lead to nutritional deficiencies, even if we’re eating well.
- Sleep deprivation affects our nutritional intake, digestion and absorption of foods which is why digestive problems are one of the most frequently complained conditions experienced by shift workers (20-75% vs. 10-25% of day workers). Common complaints by shift workers include changes in bowel habits (mainly constipation), whilst others include difficulties in digestion and flatulence, to more severe disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and peptic ulcer disease.