Shift work and ‘social jet lag’ are linked to an increased risk for several chronic diseases. Shift work is usually defined in studies as working a late or early shift more than two times per week, while social jet lag is the term for staying up late and then sleeping in on the weekends in contrast to a sleep schedule that is hours earlier during the work-week.
How does shift work affect health?
Let me throw a few quick studies at you about the impact of shift work / social jet lag:
- Solid research links shift work to an increased risk of cancer, specifically breast and prostate cancer[ref][ref][ref]
- Shift work increases the risk of being overweight[ref][ref][ref]
- It also increases the risk that your children will be overweight[ref]
- Shift workers are at an increased risk for diabetes[ref][ref]
- It also increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia[ref]
You may be thinking…I work the night shift and am just fine with it!
Like most things, it turns out that genetics plays a role in how much shift work impacts you.
Variants in the melatonin receptor gene:
While some people may get along well with shift work, others may experience more difficulties with it. A new study found one genetic variant that may shed some light on the topic (pun intended :-).
Scientists recently found that a melatonin receptor variant (MTNR1A gene) was associated with an increased likelihood of fatigue and other ill effects when working the night shift. The study looked at several different groups of night shift workers including flight attendants, pilots, and nurses. It found that those who carried the MTNR1A variant and worked the night shift more than were more likely to have higher fatigue scores. A control group that didn’t work the night shift had no effect from the MTNR1A variant. The researchers believe this variant causes fewer melatonin receptors in the brain.[ref]
Is Alzheimer’s disease linked to melatonin?
This same variant is also linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In a cohort of those aged 85 and older, it was found that those with the rs12506228 A-allele were at about double the risk of Alzheimer’s.[ref]
Related Article: Alzheimer’s and APOE genotype
MTNR1A Genetic Variant
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Check your genetic data for rs12506228 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):
- A/A: likely fewer melatonin receptors in the brain, a greater impact from working the night shift, increased risk of Alzheimer’s.[ref][ref]
- A/C: somewhat fewer melatonin receptors, somewhat impacted from light at night, increased risk of Alzheimer’s
- C/C: typical MTNR1A variant
Members: Your genotype for rs12506228 is —.
The researchers think that the reason that the variant increases the risk for Alzheimer’s and fatigue from shift work is due to a decrease in the number of melatonin receptors in the brain. Specifically, a decreased number of melatonin receptors in the suprachiasmatic nucleus may be causing increased sensitivity to light at night.[ref]
How to increase melatonin at night:
Blocking blue light at night:
Light at night is listed by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen, and even dim light at night is tied to a variety of diseases.
Blue-light blocking glasses are a great option for increasing your natural melatonin at night. Blocking out the blue wavelengths for a couple of hours before bed has been shown in several studies to increase melatonin levels within a week.
Blackout curtains are wonderful for blocking out dim light from streetlights and neighborhood light pollution. Also be sure to eliminate any sources of light (led indicator lights, night lights, etc) in your bedroom so that you can sleep in the dark.
Related Article: Color TV has made us fat: melatonin, genetics, and light at night
Researchers have been looking at the connection between melatonin and Alzheimer’s with animal studies and trials of melatonin for preventing Alzheimer’s. The research is exciting and something to keep an eye on.
Recap of your genes:
|Gene||RS ID||Risk Allele||Your Genotype||Notes About Risk Allele|
|MTNR1A||rs12506228||A||--||Fewer melatonin receptors in brain; shift work is harder and Alzheimer's risk increases|
Related Articles and Genes:
Top 10 Genes to Check in Your Genetic Raw Data
Wondering what is actually important in your genetic data? These 10 genes have important variants with a big impact on health. Check your genes (free article).
Sleep Report: Genetic Causes of Sleep Problems
A quick overview of how your genetic variants impact various aspects of sleep including insomnia, circadian rhythm, and sleep quality.
Why light at night increases the risk for cancer
The World Health Organization listed ‘light at night’ as a possible carcinogen in 2007. Let’s let that sink in for a minute… On the same list of possible carcinogens that includes formaldehyde, aflatoxin, and the HPV virus is something as innocent as artificial light at night.
Genetic Mutations that Protect Against Alzheimer’s Disease
Just like there are genetic variants that increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, there are also variants that protect against this disease. Check your genetic data to get a better picture of your risk factors. (Member’s article)
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Strohmaier, Susanne, et al. “Night Shift Work Before and During Pregnancy and Offspring Weight Outcomes Through Adolescence.” Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), vol. 26, no. 9, Sept. 2018, pp. 1491–500. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.22267.
Sulkava, Sonja, Hanna M. Ollila, et al. “Common Genetic Variation Near Melatonin Receptor 1A Gene Linked to Job-Related Exhaustion in Shift Workers.” Sleep, vol. 40, no. 1, Feb. 2017, p. zsw011. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsw011.
—. “Common Genetic Variation Near Melatonin Receptor 1A Gene Linked to Job-Related Exhaustion in Shift Workers.” Sleep, vol. 40, no. 1, Feb. 2017, p. zsw011. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsw011.
Sulkava, Sonja, Pranuthi Muggalla, et al. “Melatonin Receptor Type 1A Gene Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age.” Sleep, vol. 41, no. 7, July 2018, p. zsy103. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsy103.
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Sun, Miaomiao, et al. “Night Shift Work Exposure Profile and Obesity: Baseline Results from a Chinese Night Shift Worker Cohort.” PloS One, vol. 13, no. 5, 2018, p. e0196989. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0196989.
Wang, Pan, et al. “Night-Shift Work, Sleep Duration, Daytime Napping, and Breast Cancer Risk.” Sleep Medicine, vol. 16, no. 4, Apr. 2015, pp. 462–68. PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2014.11.017.
Debbie Moon is the founder of Genetic Lifehacks. Fascinated by the connections between genes, diet, and health, her goal is to help you understand how to apply genetics to your diet and lifestyle decisions. Debbie has a BS in engineering and also an MSc in biological sciences from Clemson University. Debbie combines an engineering mindset with a biological systems approach to help you understand how genetic differences impact your optimal health.