Four Ways Work Hours Impact Breast Cancer Risk

4 ways breast cancer risks are tied to night shift work.

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Author: Pat Bratianu RN PhD RH-AHG

I want to let you know about a subject that is very important and often not stressed enough, in my opinion. Night shift workers and people who do not get good quality rest are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

While I am sure that several factors are involved in the creation of breast cancer, I believe that night work poses significant risks. As a nurse, I worked nights for almost twenty years. I developed breast cancer and know of several other nurses who contracted that disease at a young age.

Here are some scientific and personal theories related to the impact of work hours on the formation of cancer in the breast.

The most common theory has to do with melatonin. Melatonin is produced in the brain. It helps regulate sleep and rest patterns. Night workers often sleep in irregular patterns. Melatonin provides protection against cancer cell development. In night workers, this melatonin production and regulation goes askew and the night workers are unable to benefit from its protective characteristics.

Light deprivation may be a factor. People in colder climates where it stays dark longer for much of the year tend to have higher rates of breast cancer. Exposure to sunlight helps with utilization of vitamin D. Vitamin D helps prevent cancer. Night workers often do not get much sun exposure, especially in winter. They also may not have enough darkness during sleep hours. Sleeping in too much light  is considered to be a risk factor by some researchers.

Night workers tend to eat refined, fat laden, sweet foods in order to stay awake. They often drink a lot of coffee to stay awake. Sometimes weight management issues are a problem due to being too tired to exercise regularly. High fat diets and obesity are linked to breast cancer occurrence. Night workers frequently complain of digestive upsets. A poorly functioning digestive tract cannot absorb and utilize cancer protective nutrients from healthy foods as effectively as a well functioning system.

While some workers seem to adjust well to night work, many are chronically tired. I believe that their immune systems are not working as well due to fatigue. The body systems function on a cycle with certain organs working more at some times of the day and resting while others work. An example of this is the fact that temperatures are lowest in the early hours and rise toward the evening. All of the body works on a cycle. Traditional medical healers have recognized this for centuries. My own experience, while working nights, was that I got sick very often with common illnesses that I did not contract prior to or since working a lot of nights.

I recognize that some people need to be awake at night. If you are a night worker, take extra good care of your health. Listen to the signals that your body tells you. Eat healthy. Create a dark quiet place of rest where you can sleep regular hours. Consider using supplements to ensure proper nutrient consumption and to minimize problems such as inability to fall asleep or fatigue. Get regular exercise outdoors.

Many night workers are caregivers or public servants. The tendency is to look out for others. Taking care of yourself is a necessity, not an option. You must put your health first or you will not be able to help others.

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