Med Hypotheses 2011 Sep 1;77(3):430-6. Epub 2011 Jul 1.
Western Australian Institute for Medical Research, School of Population Health, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
Shift work has been associated with various adverse health outcomes. In particular, there has been a recent flourish in investigating potential cancer risk associated with working night shifts and other shift schedules. Epidemiologic studies have revealed generally weak associations due to several methodological challenges such as lack of standard classifications of shift or night work. The field also has been hindered by a lack of clarity about the possible mechanisms by which shiftwork could have an effect on cancer risk. One possible mechanism is reduced production of melatonin caused by exposure to light at night. Although there is a growing body of evidence that provides some support for this mechanism, several other mechanisms also make sense from a biological point of view. Further, the relatively weak magnitude of the associations between light at night and melatonin level suggests that multiple factors may be operating along the pathway between shift work and adverse health consequences (including cancer risk). Here we propose four additional mechanisms that should be considered for a comprehensive investigation of these potential pathways. These are: phase shift; sleep disruption; lifestyle factors (such as poor quality diets, less physical activity and higher BMI); and lower vitamin D. Consideration of all these mechanisms is necessary in order to design effective preventative workplace strategies. In developed countries, approximately 20% of the population undertake shiftwork and, while we are unlikely to be able to eliminate shiftwork from current work practices, there are aspects of shiftwork that can be modified and there may be facets of individual susceptibility that we may be able to identify and target for prevention.