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Approved research

Investigating the interplay between gender and shiftwork in the development of metabolic syndrome

Principal Investigator: Dr Garret FitzGerald
Approved Research ID: 50398
Approval date: June 18th 2019

Lay summary

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics estimated that 18.6% of workers in the UK were employed on shift work schedules from 2007-2017. Despite being linked to the development several diseases, shift work has become an unfortunate necessity for employees in a diverse range of fields. We do not yet understand all of the pathways through which shift work affects our health, and it is therefore difficult to develop strategies to minimize these effects. Emerging studies are starting to show how shift work disrupts the timing of biological rhythms in our body - often referred to as circadian rhythms. Clocks in our body precisely time a wide variety of functions so that they can occur at the times of day which are most beneficial for us. These clocks are kept in sync by signals in our environment such as the rising of the sun. When we undertake shift work, we force our body to work against its own internal clock and expose ourselves to conflicting external signals such as bright light and food intake at inappropriate times. These work patterns can therefore lead to the disruption of our body clock over a period of decades, and it is thought that an increasing number of years working shift schedules adds cumulatively to our risk of developing diseases such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. As we know that men and women develop heart disease, obesity and diabetes at different rates in the general population, our primary aim is to use the UK Biobank data to investigate whether either sex is more vulnerable to the increased risk for these diseases associated with working shift patterns. To understand baseline differences between men and women in how their body clocks function in the absence of shift work, we wish to look for sex-based differences in the rhythms of behaviour among participants who wore activity trackers for several days. The current project will impact public health by advancing our understanding of the differences in circadian rhythms between men and women, and how the disruption of these rhythms during shiftwork affects both sexes differently. As this project requires only data which is already present in the UK Biobank, we aim to complete this project within 24 months. The results will aid in the development of schedules which minimize the disturbance to our biological clocks and may lead to better health outcomes for shift workers.