Cardiovascular Disease and Shift Work:

Is There A Connection And If So, What Can You Do About It?

It’s certainly no secret that shift work is taxiing on our health in more ways than one.  In fact I’m sure you can appreciate first hand just how challenging it is to work irregular hours day after day after day … or should I say night?

But what about cardiovascular disease?

Does working shift work enhance our risks of developing cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension and coronary heart disease?

The simple answer is ‘yes’.

And whilst the mechanisms for doing so vary, the fundamental driver behind this, is unhealthy sleep patterns – which I’m sure every single shift worker on the planet can relate too.

But exactly how does lack of sleep raise our risks of developing cardiovascular disease?

Well it essentially comes down to an overactive sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the fight-or-flight’ stress response arm of the nervous system which instigates a lot of physiological responses within the body including the release of stress chemicals that raise blood pressure and heart rate.  One of which includes cortisol.

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Weight Loss: Why It’s Not All About The Food That You Eat.

As we close the door on yet another year (seriously how fast did 2017 go!), and head into a brand spanking new one, it’s only fitting that we become inundated with a never-ending plethora of “diets” that promise to help shed those unwanted kilo’s once and for all in 2018!

But weight loss is not all about the food that we eat – particularly if you work 24/7.

If you’re like most people, you probably won’t even make it past the 8th of January before dropping the ball, and throwing in the towel on yet another diet that didn’t work for you.

Bang!  There goes that New Year’s Resolution “I’m gonna lose the weight this year!”

So why is this?

Well first and foremost, I want to re-iterate that it’s not your fault.

This is because so many diets out there focus entirely on the food that we eat, without taking into consideration anything else that may be going on, which just sets people up for failure before they’ve even begun.

Weight loss (or more importantly, having a healthy body) is not all about counting calories, running yourself ragged on the treadmill and following a restrictive diet after being told you “can’t eat this” and “can’t have that”.

I mean let’s face it – restricting ourselves from certain foods is no fun at all!

In fact, it can actually drive us a little crazy because we become so focussed on what we can and cannot have, that it only elevates our stress and cortisol levels even more, which can contribute to our weight gain.

On the other hand, prioritising your sleep even when working 24/7 can have a huge influence on your weight loss.

This is because lack of sleep leads to:

  • Poor food choices and decision making – when we’re sleep deprived, we tend to crave the naughty stuff, the sweets and greasy chips because sleep deprivation impairs the frontal lobe region of the brain which oversees complex decision making, whilst at the same time, increasing activity in the deeper region of the brain called the amygdala, which is involved in reward seeking behaviour.
  • A disruption in our appetite regulating hormones – leptin and ghrelin.  Sleep deprivation is essentially a type of hormone disruptor as it disrupts our finely tuned endocrine or hormonal system, which in turn, can cause havoc on our waistlines.   When working correctly, leptin sends signals to the brain telling us when we’re full, whilst ghrelin let’s us know when we’re feeling hungry.  The trouble for shift workers (and anyone else who may be struggling with insomnia), is these hormones don’t function as they should when we’re running on limited sleep.
  • A greater likelihood of eating bigger portion sizes – due to the disruption of these hunger hormones we’re more likely to overeat, and overeat on all of the bad stuff!  This was illustrated in a study of over 1000 sleep-deprived subjects where disruption to appetite hormones equated to an increase in food consumption equivalent to 350-500 k/cal per day, most notably in the form of snacks made from carbohydrates.

So instead of feeling extra paranoid about what you’re eating in 2018, and boarding the weight loss/weight gain roller coaster ride all over again, why not step outside the box a little and give the following a go:

  1. Make it your absolutely NUMBER 1 priority in 2018 to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.  Whilst quantity can be a little more challenging, particularly if you’ve been blessed with some not-so-friendly rosters, quality is something that each and every one of us can work on improving.  Fundamentally, getting good quality sleep is going to help regulate your appetite and control body weight through healthy food selection, as opposed to rash impulsivity that occurs whenever our sleep tanks are running close to empty.
  2. Include more real, whole foods into your diet.  Upping the intake of your veggies is going to have a profound impact on your gut health, weight AND sleep, as important neurotransmitters necessary to instigate sleep (such as serotonin and melatonin) are found in the gut.
  3. Become a self-care Ninja!  Working shift work is tough, really tough, and so many of us put the care of others before ourselves, even when we’re functioning on depleted batteries thanks to ongoing sleep disruption.  2018 needs to be the year you finally PUT YOURSELF FIRST, because when you do, you will find that you will become so much happier in yourself, and will be in a way better position to take care of others anyway.  This may mean allocating a time (every day) for yourself when you do absolutely n.o.t.h.i.n.g.  Yep!  Whether that’s sitting outside under your favourite tree with a good book, going for a swim or taking a yoga class, your overall health (including your waistline) is going to be much more open to recalibrating itself when you’re feeling way less stressed.

So why not do things differently this year, and NOT go on another diet.

Not only will your workmates be extremely jealous as you proudly share your New Year’s Resolution to “not go on another diet”, just knowing that you’re not locked into some kind of restrictive eating pattern for the next few weeks, months etc. is going to lift an enormous weight off your shoulders and set you up for a much healthy and happier shift working existence in 2018.

Audra x

 

References: 

Broussard, J, Kulkus, J, Delebecque, F, Abraham, V, Day, A, Whitmore, H & Tasali, E 2016, ‘Elevated ghrelin predicts food intake during experimental sleep restriction’, Obesity, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 132-138.

Fung, J 2016, The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss, Scribe Publications, Brunswick.

Greer, S, Goldstein, A & Walker, M 2013, ‘The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain’, Nature Communications, vol. 4, no. 2259, pp. 1-19.

Harvard School of Public Health 2017, ‘Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar’.

School of Medicine and Public Health 2013, ‘How the tired brain directs junk-food binges’, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Results Are In!

Shift Work DOES Impair Our Cognitive Function.

Sleepy Brain character

As we get ready to close the door on 2015 and make way for 2016, I’m in a bit of celebration mode right now and it’s not even New Year’s Eve!

If you’re wondering why it’s because my end of semester University results have been published, and I’m happy to report I managed to pass everything.

Phew! A major relief.

This means I’m officially about to head into my final year of my Nutritional Medicine degree and I could not be happier – be it a little bit nervous at the same time.

However I’m even more proud of myself (and I’m sure you will be able to relate to this one), because for years I struggled to remember things – which I put down to a life of continual sleep-deprivation.

After a string of early shifts, I would often struggle to concentrate and make decisions, and even felt a little “forgetful” at times.

Not ideal for someone who, at the time, was only in her 30’s.

However as I was scrolling through a pile of research papers, I stumbled across a study of 1484 shift workers which confirmed a strong association between working 24/7 and impaired cognition, particularly if you’d worked shift work for more than 10 years (*).

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