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Working the night shift could be hazardous for your (gut) health

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Previous studies have noted that people who frequently disrupt their biological clocks, such as night-shift workers, show greater levels of metabolic diseases like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Now, researchers may have come up with one significant factor for the risks, and it's all about the health topic de jour — your gut.

Scientists at The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that mice and humans with chronically disrupted wake-sleep patterns showed changes in the composition and function of their gut bacteria. That could lead to increased risk for obesity and glucose intolerance, the researchers noted.

In a press release about the study, Weizmann Institute Professor Eran Segal explains:

"Our gut bacteria's ability to coordinate their functions with our biological clock demonstrates, once again, the ties that bind us to our bacterial population and the fact that disturbances in these ties can have consequences for our health."

Published in Cell, the study noted that researchers first looked at "jet-lagged" mice, whose day-night rhythms were altered by exposing them to light and dark at different intervals. During that process, the mice stopped eating at regular times, leading to interrupted cycles of intestinal bacteria and to subsequent weight gain and high blood sugar levels.

When the process was attempted in human subjects, a similar shift occurred. Researchers concluded that the long-term disruption of the biological clock leads to a disturbance in bacteria's function, and they called for further studies to be done that would lead to solutions for people who experience frequent sleep pattern changes.

The results confirm a longstanding link between working the third shift and digestive disorders, a connection noted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in a 1997 publication, "Plain Language About Shiftwork."

For those who work a night shift, LIVESTRONG.COM offers several recommendations for a healthier diet, including eating more complex carbohydrates, such as lentils, sweet potatoes and brown rice, that contain loads of fiber and can be broken down slowly. The site also suggests eating a higher amount of vitamin D-fortified food because "your ability to produce vitamin D naturally in your body is limited because you have less exposure to sunlight during the day." (Alternatively, you could also take a vitamin D supplement.)

This study is but one more example of how critical the "microbiome" — the trillions of viruses, fungi, bacteria and protozoa that exist in our bodies — is to our health. The various microbes in our body, Experience Life reports, help balance our immune system, fight dangerous bugs and modulate our weight and metabolism.

“Our bodies are 10 times more bacterial cells than they are human cells,” Heidi Nelson, MD, director of the Microbiome Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn, told Experience Life. “We are finally beginning to understand the microbial populations that we coexist with.”

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