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Shift Work, Rotating Shifts Increase Risk for Irritable Bowel Syndrome


Those who participate in shift work have changes to their biological clock that results in adverse symptoms, such as abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea – classic signs of irritable bowel syndrome, according to new research found in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. Shift-workers are also more likely to have disturbances in sleep quality.

Researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School evaluated a group of nurses with three different work patterns. 214 worked permanent day shifts, 110 worked permanent night shifts, and 75 had shifts that rotated between day and night. More than 85% were women. Each answered questions about abdominal symptoms and sleep quality.

The women who worked rotating shifts had the highest prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms and abdominal pain independent of sleep quality. Night shift workers also had more symptoms than permanent day shift nurses.

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Sandra Hoogerwerf MD, assistant professor of internal medicine at U-M Medical School says that the colon has its own “biological clock” and disruption to the cycle can lead to symptoms characteristic of irritable bowel syndrome, such as diarrhea, bloating, constipation, and abdominal pain and discomfort. In addition, stress can stimulate colon spasms in people with IBS.

As many as 20% of the US adult population has symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to the National Institutes of Health. It occurs more often in women than men, and typically begins before the age of 35.

Researchers do not know the exact cause of IBS, but suspect that some people have a colon that is particularly sensitive to certain foods and stress. The immune system, which regulates the lining of the large intestine, may also be involved. Recent research has also shown a link between the neurotransmitter serotonin and IBS as 95% of the chemical is found in the GI tract and people with IBS have diminished receptor activity.

There is no specific test for IBS and diagnosis is generally based on symptoms, after ruling out other problems. Symptoms are usually managed with medications that can relief constipation or reduce diarrhea and antidepressants. Lifestyle changes, such as dietary measures and stress reduction, may also be helpful.

Journal Reference:
Borko Nojkov, Joel H Rubenstein, William D Chey, Willemijntje A Hoogerwerf. The Impact of Rotating Shift Work on the Prevalence of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Nurses. American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2010; DOI: 10.1038/ajg.2010.48