Numerous research studies strongly suggest that consistently working the night shift can hurt your health–from increased risk of heart disease and heart attacks to diabetes, obesity, depression/anxiety, and even cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) even goes as far as to warn people that night shift work is “possibly carcinogenic.”
In a large-scale study published in International Journal of Cancer in 2012, French researchers showed a whopping 30% increase in breast cancer rates among women who regularly worked night shifts four years or more. In another large-scale study, Danish researchers at the Danish Cancer Society revealed similar findings: night shift workers had a 40% increased risk of developing breast cancer (Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2012). The same Danish researchers recently released yet another study (British Medical Journal, January 2016) that showed a strong association between regular night shift work and developing diabetes.
What is the TCM explanation for why night shifts can harm your health, and what can you do to mitigate these effects? Simply put, not following natural law is always energetically expensive; this applies to anything that we do. In this particular instance, sleeping at night is what comes naturally. To force yourself to work at night requires at least twice the energy than you exert during the day. Added to that, most night shift workers have difficulty sleeping proper amounts during the day, especially if their shifts are at inconsistent hours.
This physical and energetic stress sooner or later takes its toll, imbalancing your body on top of running your energy reserves into the ground. Chinese medicine practitioners have known for centuries that low energy + imbalance over a long period of time predisposes one to many serious ailments, as is also suggested by evidence-based research.
While it may not be realistic to immediately quit your night shifts, making a concerted effort to and rebalance your body is of utmost importance, especially if you are beginning to notice signs of imbalance (fatigue, low immune system, aches and pains, mood disorders, etc.).
Several actions you can take to make an immediate difference:
- Build up your energy reserves with a routine energy practice. Whether it’s Qigong, Tai Chi, yoga, or meditation, find a practice that suits you. Regular acupuncture treatments and herbal therapy can also help immensely.
- Schedule in plenty of stress-relieving activities and relaxing downtime. If you work night shifts, you are automatically under more stress–it’s doubly, even triply, important for you to minimize stress and its energy-draining effects, as your energy reserves are being taxed-to-the-max.
- Eat healthy, nutritious meals at regular times. Avoid energy-draining eating habits such as eating infrequently and eating too many hard-to-digest foods at night, such as dairy, refined carbs, meat, iced drinks, or cold and raw foods. Again, you need to conserve energy to “spend” on keeping your body in balance and your metabolism at a healthy level (also important for generating maximum energy).