The standard workday runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Those who work other hours are engaged in “shift work”—starting before 7 a.m., ending after 6 p.m., and especially working overnight or a mixture of days and nights. Estimates vary, but up to 25 million Americans—10 percent of working adults—engage in shiftwork, notably: police officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors, pilots, truck drivers, and many construction and restaurant workers. Shift work threatens both physical and mental health (more below). To the long list of possible health hazards researchers at universities in the U.S. and in Iran have recently added sex problems— in men, erectile dysfunction (ED and in women, general loss of sexual function and enjoyment.
The American researchers surveyed 754 men who’d consulted doctors for ED. About 6 percent reported both shift work and sleep disruption. That combination significantly increased their risk of ED (p < 0.01), especially the men who worked overnight.
The Iranian team surveyed 120 women nurses engaged in shift work about their sleep quality and sexual satisfaction. Then the researchers spent six hours counseling the nurses how to improve their sleep quality. After three months, the nurses’ sleep quality improved modestly but significantly. So did their sexual pleasure and satisfaction.
Circadian Rhythm: Important for Sex
Shift work is often socially isolating. You’re free when others are working and visa versa, so many shift workers feel cut off from friends, family and lovers. Shift workers often find it difficult to schedule time to exercise. And they may gravitate toward junk foods out of vending machines rather than eating nutritious meals.
In addition, shift work disrupts circadian rhythm, our internal body clock that responds to the natural cycle of daylight and darkness. This often leads to sleep disturbances and sleep loss. If you’ve ever flown across several time zones, especially across oceans, you’ve probably experienced the most prevalent circadian rhythm disturbance, jet lag. Now imagine suffering jet lag daily because of the demands of your job. Shift work is biologically disruptive and associated with many health problems, some potentially serious:
• Chronic insomnia
• Chronic fatigue
• Increased risk of accidents and injuries
• Depression and other mood disorders
• Decreased well-being and quality of life
• Increased risk of gastrointestinal problems including intestinal distress, diarrhea, constipation, and heartburn
• Increases risk of diabetes
• Increased risk of cardiovascular disease—high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke
Shift work does not condemn anyone to develop these problems, but working non-standard hours puts shift workers at unusually high risk for all of them. And sex problems.
Preserving Sexual Function and Pleasure Despite Shift Work
As the Iranian study shows, getting sufficient sleep is one important way to preserve sexual function and pleasure. Here’s what authorities on shift work recommend:
• Get at least seven hours of sleep every 24 hours. Shift workers often believe they can “get by” on less. But sleep experts say the vast majority of adults need at least seven hours a night. If you get less, try to make up for lost sleep by sleeping extra the following day.
• Sleep in the dark. Exposure to light wakes up the body. Even a little light can disrupt sleep. Use a sleep mask and consider black-out blinds and drapes, especially if you work overnight and sleep during the day.
• Eat a low-fat, plant-based diet, and exercise daily. These approaches help prevent diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also help preserve sexual function in all genders.
• Try to alter your work schedule. If possible, move to or close to standard work hours. If that’s not possible, it’s much healthier to work the same hours every day rather than rotating shifts. If you’re represented by a union, ask your shop steward to help mitigate the problems caused by shift work. Compared with those who work standard hours, shift workers are often less productive, so management may feel motivated to limit it.
• Schedule sex dates in advance. This is especially important if one member of a couple is a shift worker and the other is not. Schedule sex for times when both partners feel awake and energetic.