Shift work refers to both long-term night shifts and work schedules where employees change or rotate shifts between daytime and evening or night schedules. Shift work is a reality for about 25 percent of the North American working population.
Many workers prefer shift work because of the free time and flexibility it provides. However, for most workers, shift work causes at least some disruption to their family and personal life and some degree of negative health symptoms. Being constantly tired is a typical complaint of shift workers, often described as “jet lag”. Shift work can also lead to health problems including insomnia, chronic fatigue and gastrointestinal disorders. Shift work can make it difficult participate in regular social activities and family life, which can cause loneliness and isolation.
A shift worker, particularly one who works nights, must function on a schedule that is not “natural”. The body is naturally attuned to a circadian rhythm- many of the body’s functions follow a daily rhythm or a 24-hour cycle. Sleeping, waking, digestion, secretion of adrenalin, body temperature, blood pressure, pulse and many other important body functions and human behaviour are regulated by this 24-hour cycle. These rhythmical processes are synchronized to allow for high activity during the day and low activity at night. However, if a person is working at night, the body rhythms get out of sync with the person’s activity pattern. This disorientation can lead to feelings of fatigue and disorientation, or “jet lag”. Also, exposure to light at night can alter sleep-activity patterns and suppress melatonin production, leading to insomnia or difficulty sleeping.
Frequent changes in schedule and disruption to circadian rhythms can lead to chronic fatigue and other health problems, including higher risk for heart attack and cardiovascular conditions, digestive problems such as indigestion, heartburn, stomachache and loss of appetite, and insomnia or sleeping disorders. Shift work can also interfere with medications and the medical treatment of some diseases. Because of the way that shift work disrupts the circadian rhythm, research suggests long-term shift work may also increase the risk of cancer. Shift workers are also at risk of eating a less healthy diet because the loss of appetite at night often leads to increased snacking on “junk” food, while fatigue may encourage the consumption of caffeinated drinks to help the worker stay awake. This can further aggravate health issues particularly gastrointestinal problems and difficulty sleeping.
Where does acupuncture fit into this? Acupuncture can offer stellar results for improving the wellbeing and quality-of-life of shift workers. Acupuncture is very effective for many of the symptoms that accompany shift work: it can improve energy and mental clarity, resolve insomnia, and correct digestive disorders. It can also help shift workers adjust to changes in schedules or days off and help the body bounce back more quickly. One of the ways acupuncture may be particularly helpful for shift workers is the way in which it helps to normalize and regulate the body’s functions. Research has shown that acupuncture can influence many systems within the body, including our hormones, our neurotransmitters, our immune system, our blood pressure, and our circulation, helping to correct any functions that are out of balance or not working properly. What this means is that acupuncture may help the body to get back into its normal circadian rhythm, and help these rhythms to adjust more quickly to changes in the daily routines.
One of the biggest changes that shift workers notice with acupuncture is a boost in their energy levels. There is a huge improvement in quality of life that accompanies this change, as a person is more alert both at work and through the daytime, better able to enjoy time off and to be more involved in their family and social life. Indeed, many people find that with regular treatments, shift work no longer has to take a huge toll on their personal life.
Prevention and healthy lifestyle are also very important for shiftworkers, both for maintaining quality of life, and because shift work puts a worker at higher risk for health problems. Regular exercise and maintaining an adequate level of fitness is important, as is good dietary habits, managing stress, and making time for leisure activities. Participation in family and social life is also important for physical and mental health.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna.