Night Shifts and Biological Concerns

A Deeper Look into What Happens to Nurses on Night Shift

While a variety of professions are required to provide around-the-clock services, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals provide those of the upmost importance. Medicine is a crucial 24-hour field, but considering the health of those providing care is just as important to address. While our blog has looked into both sleep deprivationand the effects of shift workon medical professionals and their patients, we’ve decided to revisit the topic of graveyard shift work to look more closely at how this work affects nurses’ and doctors’ bodies, especially in light of recently published research.


Results of Night-Shift Work

As anyone who’s ever pulled an all-nighter knows, staying awake during hours humans typically are asleep disturbs bodily processes, from cognition to digestion, all connected to circadian rhythms. Since these cellular cycles are naturally synchronized within our bodies, disrupting them though atypical sleep-related behavior can have both short and long-term effects.[1]From a physical standpoint, shift work has been linked to chronic diseases and illnesses such as gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and certain cancers.[2]This is partially due to the suppression of melatonin with the exposure to light at night, and partially due to the fact that nurses and doctors who work night shift are more likely to have poor sleep habits,[3]which is proven to change metabolism and appetite, leading to irregular eating habits and poor diet.[4]

Additionally, shift work can result in mental health problems like depression, since the disruption of the circadian cycle affects the release of chemicals in the body.[5]Productivity, work performance, and safety are also affected, as sleep deprivation that often comes with this work affects general cognition, from slowing reaction time to reducing concentration.[6]


A New Understanding of Risks

In thinking about this concern, the question many scientists have asked is, what exactly is happening inside us when exposed to years of night-shift work? A recent study looked at how gene expression changes in graveyard shift workers, and found that the changes that lead to cancer and other chronic and deadly illnesses are due to a physiological disconnect wherein genes associated with circadian cycles were dampened.[7]These genes kept the same rhythms used during normal sleep schedules, unable to adapt to a new schedule, while firing at lower strength.[8]Additionally, other biological processes and regulatory molecules were found to be altered, such as gene expression related to metabolism and the function of certain immune cells, which could be the cause of the long-term health problems already known.[9]This new research makes it more apparent than ever that though night nurses and doctors are essential, providing them with better support is clearly just as necessary.


What This Means for Legal Experts

Whether your client is a patient who fell victim to a system that fails to value caregiver wellbeing, or a caregiver who themselves is facing medical or legal consequences for dangerous shift work, it’s important to understand the risks of this phenomenon and why they exist. Supporting your client through knowledge can help you build a stronger case and a stronger client bond.

We can never do away with graveyard shifts, and I doubt anyone would suggest we should, but better support systems are critical in order to make those shifts worth working, especially as more and more research reveals its dangers. In the middle of a nursing shortage in this country, the last thing we need is to scare off more qualified medical professionals.

[1]Lant, Karla, “Working Nights Could be Destroying Your Health,”, Sept. 13, 2917,

[2]“Living & Coping with Shift Work Disorder”, National Sleep Foundation, n.d.,

[3]Sindel, David, “The Risks of Working the Night Shift,”, 2011,

[4]“Living & Coping”



[7]Kervezee, Laura, Cuesta, Marc, Cermakian, Nicolas, & Diane B. Boivin, “Simulated night shift work induces circadian misalignment of the human peripheral blood mononuclear cell transcriptome,”PNAS, May 22, 2018,

[8]Satyanarayana, Megha, “Stubborn genes: New research looks at how our bodies respond (or don’t) to night shift work,” STAT News, May 7, 2018,