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In a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, more than 3200 workers were evaluated over a 10-year period to measure the effects of shift work (working nights) on cognitive function, productivity and safety. (1)
The study suggested that shift work and chronic jet lag disturbs the natural circadian rhythms, which is associated with a variety of health and social problems. Ulcers, cardiovascular issues, breast cancer, metabolic syndrome and reproductive difficulties have been linked to shift work, along with a decrease in safety and productivity. (1)
According to the study, shift work can significantly alter brain function, causing impaired memory, slower thought process and loss of productivity. The negative effect on safety at work has had a profound effect on all of us. (1)
Safety accidents such as Chernobyl, the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill were in part caused by operator error due to excessive shift work. According to the Federal Motor Safety Carrier Administration, there are 750 deaths and 20,000 accidents a year due to overtired commercial vehicle drivers.
They also found that the effect of shift work is difficult to shake! If shift work is performed for 10 years, it takes a whopping 5 years to recover and return to normal brain function. When workers alternate their schedules as recommended to offset the dangers of shift work, the study suggests that it only makes the effects worse. (1)
Excessive lifestyle stress, such as shift work, has been shown to block the body’s ability to actually listen to its genetic signals. (2) Sleep signals, as well as other health-related signals, are commonly overruled or not heard by the body as a result of excessive stress. Let’s call this mechanism “gene noise.”
Stress is perhaps the most well-documented mechanism linked to accelerated degeneration of the body. Today, the impact of stress is linked to poor gene expression. Gene expression refers to how your genetic makeup shows through in your health, personality or character traits. The newest research is suggesting that stressful behavior is passed on through generations. Learn more in my article, “How Stress is Carried for Generations.” Such gene noise that can interfere with circadian rhythms may be most evident in the chronic disturbance in sleep cycles that plagues the western world.
Adaptogens are a class of herbs that are designed to help mitigate the woes of stress on the body. These herbs, instead of stimulating or sedating the body from a stressor, help to rebuild energy reserves, rejuvenate the body and help the body cope with stress naturally. Perhaps the most well-documented and well-studied adaptogenic herb is the Ayurvedic herb, Ashwagandha (withania somnifera). (3) Used for energy, stamina, immunity, longevity, sleep and much more, it seems to be best known for its ability to help reconnect the body back to its natural rhythms. (3) Reconnecting the body back into sync with its natural rhythms may help reduce gene noise, and perhaps mitigate shift work and help the body stay healthy longer. Ashwagandha may support greater energy and stamina in the morning and, if taken before bed, support healthy sleep cycles. The sign of a true and deep rejuvenating adaptogen: if it can give energy when taken in the morning and support sleep when taken before bed, acting as neither a stimulant nor sedative.
In Ayurveda, much emphasis is put on living a lifestyle that is in sync with the natural cycles. Shift work puts a significant strain on the nervous system to adapt to a lifestyle against the grain of nature’s rhythms. There are hormonal cycles that wax and wane throughout the day that allow us to eat, sleep, energize and tire – all according to our connection to the natural cycles. Living in tune with these cycles allows us to swim downstream with the current. Learn how to flow with these cycles in my article and video, “Live with the Natural Cycles.”