Working the graveyard shift is already linked to a number of health problems — increased risk for obesity, heart attacks, breast cancer and diabetes; reduced serotonin levels, a shorter lifespan and bad sleep habits. But new research out of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston found that disrupted sleep is linked to erectile dysfunction and urinary issues, and shift work is linked to lower sperm count, WebMD reported. Researchers don’t know if working the night shift is the direct cause, just that men who experienced infertility did so at greater rates when they also worked the graveyard shift.
The research, led by Dr. Alex Pastuszak, looked at three groups of men: 75 infertile shift workers, 96 infertile men, and 27 fertile men who’d recently had children. Two studies also surveyed 2,500 men about urinary issues. Of the infertile men, the shift workers were found to have significantly lower sperm counts, lower testosterone and more symptoms related to their lower testosterone.
“We know that shift work can disrupt circadian rhythms and disrupt normal hormonal function,” Pastuszak told WebMD. “Shift work can also put people at risk for shift-work sleep disorder, which causes insomnia or excessive sleepiness and a reduction of total sleep time due to a work schedule.” Pastuszak said he thinks the issue is that too much or too little sleep changes hormone levels and the genes that matter in sperm production.
(The research is being considered preliminary until it’s published — it was only presented at the American Urological Association’s annual meeting this month.)
The problem is that going against the body’s natural urge to sleep at night is an enormous effort for which workers pay a price.
While some people are night owls who take to the night shift and love it, others are enacting a constant battle to reorder their bodies to an abnormal pattern, fighting sleepiness and pounding caffeine to make it through the night, then hitting the hay when everyone else’s alarm is going off.
And while many of those who work while the rest of us sleep are well paid white-collar workers — ER doctors, funeral directors, air traffic controllers — the majority are cops, firefighters, truck drivers, service workers and the like.
Around 1.3 percent of the 27 million Americans in managerial or professional roles work the night shift, PBS reported. The lion’s share of night workers are in blue-collar roles:
Of the over 11 million service workers (which include those in protective services, food service, and cleaning services), 6.5 percent work the night shift and 10.8 percent work the evening shift (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Of the over 14 million operators, fabricators, and laborers, 7.4 percent work the night shift and 7.7 percent work the evening shift (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
About 60 percent of those jobs are held by men, at an average age of 38. Some 70 percent say they cut back on sleep regularly to accommodate the schedule, and over half report dealing with moderate fatigue all the time. It’s not all bad — they’re free during the day, after all, and as a result, at least get about an extra half-hour with their children compared to 9-to-5 workers.
But the choice to take an overnight shift is typically economic, not a personal preference. That such a choice may threaten a man’s ability to father children because he needed to make ends meet is just one more price blue-collar workers pay just to keep their heads above water.
It is, however, possible to buffer against some of these effects. Pastuszak recommended that overnight workers be vigilant about getting regular sleep and avoiding the disruptions that can mess with an already tenuous situation. Caffeine, booze and bright screens should be avoided before bedtime. Easier said than done, though, since those things are often used to get through that night shift in the first place, or unwind when it’s done.