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Do you work the graveyard shift? A lack of sleep, working under bright fluorescent lights, and eating a large meal on your break in the middle of the night can all harm your health. Even if you don’t work a night shift, you may find yourself in a routine that involves a lack of sleep—and it’s trend that you should work to reverse.
Researchers, after all, have found science-backed links between disrupting the body’s biological clock and sleep deprivation, low vitamin D, cardiovascular risk, and obesity.
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Top 6 Damaging Side Effects Caused by Lack of Sleep
Here are the details you need to know if you deprive yourself of a full night’s sleep because of a late work shift or other poor sleep habits.
- Sleep disorder. About 10 percent of shift workers have a diagnosable “shift work sleep disorder,” which involves trouble sleeping at night, not getting enough sleep, and feeling sleepy while at work. It can be very difficult for night-shift workers to get sufficient sleep during the day, leading to an overall sleep deficit.
- Low vitamin D. The “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D, is important for many aspects of health and can even reduce your risk for mortality. Unfortunately, night workers often don’t get the normal amount of sunlight exposure; studies have found shift work to be associated with low levels of vitamin D.
- Weight gain. Lack of sleep and the habit of sleeping odd hours are considered independent risk factors for gaining weight, and shift workers are more likely to have obesity and higher BMIs than day workers.[4,5]
- High triglycerides. Studies show that shift workers tend to have elevated triglyceride levels, even after adjusting for other factors such as dietary intake.[4,6,7] Elevated triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease.
- High cholesterol. Shift workers also have higher LDL cholesterol levels, another risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
- Cardiovascular disease. One of the major risks of shift work is cardiovascular disease. [6,8,] Initially, it was thought that shift workers may have higher cardiovascular risk because of poor eating habits, socioeconomic factors, or the stress of a difficult schedule. However, recent research correcting for these factors has found that the link may actually be due to disruptions in sleep cycles, causing an alteration in the body’s biological clock.
What Causes Lack of Sleep and Sleep Deprivation Symptoms?
So, how important is the biological clock in each of us?
It’s an important question that involves our circadian rhythm, which regulates our 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Although most people associate the body clock with a part of the brain that regulates when we sleep, all the cells in our body are actually in tune with this 24-hour pattern.
Our circadian rhythm affects many processes throughout the entire body, and proper function of our biological clock is important for maintaining good overall health. When we’re exposed to light at night, when we sleep at odd times, and when we eat on an irregular schedule, our biological clock gets disrupted.
Studies have shown that eating out of sync with our normal rhythm changes the way our circadian rhythm regulates metabolism. Many of the genes that regulate our circadian rhythm also regulate the oscillating levels of lipids in our blood. Circadian rhythms control lipid and carbohydrate balance to optimize energy storage for use throughout the day. This is why sleeping and eating on an irregular schedule, as with night shift, can disrupt triglyceride and cholesterol levels and make us gain weight.
How Can You Reduce the Risk of These Health Effects?
Researchers believe that improving sleep habits could help reverse conditions influenced by disrupted sleep schedules, such as insomnia.
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- Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Get into the routine of going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day.
- Consider wearing blue light blocking glasses when you’re awake at night. Read more about them here.
- Avoid eating at night as well, as eating at a point in the 24-hour cycle when your body does not expect food will result in impaired metabolism of that food. Try sticking as close to traditional mealtimes as possible. For example, try eating a late dinner before you go to work and then another meal in the morning, while avoiding any large meals during your night shift.
- When your job requires you to work at night or you have an ever-changing schedule with odd hours, be sure that you are monitoring your health closely.
- Get your triglyceride and cholesterol levels checked regularly; catching rising levels early can help you to make the lifestyle changes necessary to reduce your cardiovascular disease risk.
- Eat well when working night shift, making sure to maintain a well-rounded diet full of the nutrients that will keep you healthy. Get plenty of fruits, vegetables, protein, fiber, and healthy fats like omega 3s into your diet.
- Monitor your weight and avoid soft drinks and processed junk foods that contribute to obesity.
- Supplement with vitamin D as well. Read more about optimal dosage of vitamin D here.
Share Your Experience
Do you work late into the night or have a job with odd hours? Do you have any tips on sleep deprivation cures or using a sleep aid? Share your experience in the Comments section below.
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 J Mol Endocrinol. 2014 Feb 24;52(2):133-43.
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Originally published in 2016, this post is regularly updated.