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Shift work leads to different health complications for men and women

Experts worry about the impact this type of work can have on consumers’ immune systems

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Photo (c) Srdjan Pav - Getty Images
Several recent studies have revealed that consumers who do shift work can be more susceptible to diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Waterloo has confirmed that shift work can increase consumers’ risk of health complications, but the findings show that men and women are affected differently. 

“Because our immune system is affected by the circadian clock, our ability to mount an immune response changes during the day,” said researcher Anita Layton. “How likely are you to fight off an infection that occurs in the morning than midday? The answer depends on whether you are a man or a woman, and whether you are among the quarter of the modern-day labour force that work an irregular schedule.” 

Disruptions to the circadian clock can impact health

Working in shifts disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm because waking and sleeping hours typically don’t line up with traditional morning and evening times. While other studies have found that this ultimately makes consumers more susceptible to illness, the team on this project wanted to see if men and women were affected differently.

The researchers created a computer-based model that simulated how both men and women would respond to shift work. They paid close attention to several key measures, including inflammatory markers, genes related to circadian rhythm, and the body’s overall immune response. 

The researchers learned that men’s and women’s immune systems respond differently to shift work, especially when an infection is present. They found that our bodies have a harder time fighting off infection during the nighttime hours, and men are more likely to struggle with this than women. 

They explained that in the time typically right before bed, our bodies are unable to produce the necessary defense against infections. When consumers are working during those hours, it can make the body even more vulnerable to illness. The study also demonstrated that shift workers generally had different immune responses than those who worked more traditional daytime hours. 

The researchers hope that these findings highlight the differences in how men and women respond to shift work and the overarching health risks associated with this type of work. 

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