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Does working nights increase your risk of cancer?

Karen Alexander, Licensed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

February 22, 2018

It is estimated that 20 percent of the workforce worldwide works the night shift regularly or rotationally. For years studies have linked night work with several health conditions. Alterations of the sleep/wake cycle affect your circadian rhythms, which are driven by the body clock (about 24 hours) located in the brain, and is synchronized by environmental cues such as light/dark cycle. Staying awake at night and trying to sleep during the day is not a physiological condition for humans and imposes stress on the body.

Several epidemiological studies have reported a higher prevalence of nutritional, hormonal, digestive, cardiac and metabolic disturbances, as well as obesity and mood disorders in people with night work shifts. Several studies have shown an association between shift work and increased risk of cancer; specifically, that working night shifts may increase the risk of breast, skin and gastrointestinal cancer.

Night shift work may contribute to the increase in breast cancer risk through hormonal changes. Studies have shown that cancer risk in women increased with increased years of night shift work. The correlation is not clear, but it may involve suppression of immune surveillance or suppression of melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone in the body that helps control the sleep cycle. Endogenous melatonin secretion increases in the late evening, hitting a peak in the early morning (2:00-4:00 A.M.). Exposure to light at night and working night shifts both disrupts the sleep cycle and suppresses melatonin levels. Melatonin inhibits the enzymes involved in the synthesis of estrogen, thus low melatonin levels can lead to high levels of estrogen in the body, which might potentially increase the risk of breast cancer. Diets rich in vegetables, fruits, and grains contain considerable levels of dietary melatonin. Although diet and nutrients moderate fluctuating melatonin levels, the influence is minor when compared with the power of the light-dark cycle.

If you can’t change your night shifts don’t worry. You can change other aspects of your lifestyle that can greatly reduce your cancer risk. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, nearly half of the most common US cancers could be prevented through modifiable risk factors including weight control, a balanced diet and physical activity.

Balanced Diet
Several studies have proven that the best cancer-protective diets are plant-based diets. The best example of an anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory diet is the Mediterranean diet. This diet is mainly centered on plants and although it may include animal products, most foods are derived from legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.), grains (preferably whole wheat), vegetables (preferably non-starchy), fruits (preferably no juices), nuts and seeds. For more information please click here.

Weight Control
As you age, you lose muscle mass, which may increase frailty. You also burn fewer calories, especially if you’re not very physically active. To prevent weight gain, you may need to eat fewer calories than you did when we were younger. This means eating smaller food portions, but also making wise choices in order to get all the nutrients your body needs in fewer portions. Be careful with losing weight too fast as you may also be losing muscle mass. Contact your health care provider for a healthy way to lose weight. However, you can take some steps forward. A healthy way to improve your weight is to increase your physical activity and make better food choices to reduce those unnecessary extra calories from your diet. For more information about how to reduce your calorie intake with simple healthy substitutions click here.

Physical Activity
Physical activity is associated with a lower risk of developing 13 different types of cancer. According to several health agencies, we need to get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day.

At Ackerman Cancer Center we know the value of following a healthy lifestyle to reduce not just cancer, but many other preventable chronic diseases. Several wellness programs have been launched in recent years in order to create a culture of health awareness among our patients and staff, and it is working. Our staff members challenge each other with healthy diets and physical activity challenges, and our patients tell us their stories about how they are changing their food choices and how they have engaged other members of their family as exercise buddies. We want to encourage you to be part of this movement and chose a healthy lifestyle.

For more information on how changing your lifestyle may prevent the risk for different types of cancer visit the AICR’s website.

Having a balanced circadian rhythm can be a critical part of recovery. Learn more about why Ackerman Cancer Center is a leader in Proton Therapy.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Karen Alexander, MS, RDN, LD/N

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