Shift Workers May Be at Higher Risk for IBS

A new study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology is showing that shift workers, especially those working in rotating shifts, are at a significantly higher risk for developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and stomach pain than workers in a standard nine-to-five time schedule. The study, which followed nearly 400 nurses classified into three groups: 214 working in permanent day shifts; 110 working in permanent night shifts; and 75 working in rotating shifts between day and night, found that the nurses in the day-only shifts had the lowest rates of IBS, while nurses working a combination of day and night shifts had the highest rates.

Researchers of the study say that one possible explanation of the increased rates of IBS is that the colon has its own biological clock that tells the body it should have a bowel movement in the first six hours of the day. When workers constantly change when they're getting up to go to work, the chronic disruption of the gut's circadian rhythm causes the body's clock to have to frequently readjust. This can result in diarrhea, bloating, constipation and abdominal pain and discomfort as well as other gastrointestinal problems associated with IBS. Shift work has been linked to other health problems as well, including obesity, heart disease, and breast and colon cancers. Further studies need to be performed, say the study researchers, to determine whether IBS and abdominal pain is an underlying result of circadian rhythm disorder.

Finding Help

Keeping to one shift and avoiding rotating shift work can help reduce IBS symptoms, according to Sandra Hoogerwerf, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study. Maintaining a regular routine of when you go to bed and when you eat meals can also help, as can eating your biggest meal in the middle of the day, says Dr. Hoogerwerf.

Taking melatonin supplements, which can help regulate the body's internal clock, may also be effective in treating IBS symptoms, according to several studies. The studies tested the dietary supplement in doses in the 3mg range, which can be bought in health food stores and pharmacies. However, because dietary supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to ensure that you're getting the dose and ingredients advertised on the bottle, look for products certified by United States Pharmacopeia (USP), or the National Sanitation Foundation.

Before taking melatonin or any dietary supplement to help with your IBS symptoms, check with your doctor to see what might be most effective for you.