Holidays have restorative effects on shift workers' DNA


Wednesday, 24 February, 2021


Holidays have restorative effects on shift workers' DNA

Finnish researchers have revealed that resting during a holiday period restores functions associated with DNA regulation in shift workers suffering from sleep deprivation. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, their work provides new insight into the molecular biological mechanisms set in motion by sleep deprivation which underlie related adverse health effects.

The researchers from the University of Helsinki, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and the Finnair airline set out to investigate dynamic changes to DNA methylation in shift workers. DNA methylation denotes epigenetic regulation that modifies gene function and regulates gene activity without changing the sequence of bases in the DNA.

Short-term genetic changes caused by DNA methylation are not well known. While methylation is connected with our surroundings, more research is needed on how the environment affects epigenetic regulation and gene function. The Finnish research provides new information on both DNA methylation and the biological processes that have an impact on a sleep disorder related to shift work (shift work disorder, or SWD).

A total of 32 shift workers participated in the study, of whom 21 suffered from shift work disorder and 11 were in the control group. Dynamic changes to DNA methylation were investigated through a genome-wide analysis during work and after a holiday period.

Changes to DNA methylation which affected gene function were identified in study subjects suffering from a sleep disorder caused by shift work. The findings demonstrated that rest and recovery during holiday periods also resulted in the restoration of DNA methylation in cases where changes had been observed during the work period.

The study proved the dynamic nature of DNA methylation, which was particularly emphasised in the activity of NMDA glutamate receptors. The strongest evidence was gained from the GRIN2C receptor: the methylation level of a specific CpG base pair in the regulatory region was lower during the work period in subjects suffering from shift work disorder. However, this change was reversed after the holiday period.

“Based on the results, we can deduce that changes to the DNA methylation of white blood cells are associated with shift work disorder,” said doctoral student Alexandra Lahtinen, MSc, from the University of Helsinki. “These changes, such as low methylation levels observed during the work period, are probably linked to sleep deprivation and related inflammatory consequences which DNA changes may mediate.”

“Sufficient rest and recovery are important for everyone, but especially important for people with a background of long-term sleep deprivation due to, for example, living habits or irregular working conditions,” said principal investigator Professor Tiina Paunio from the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. “Having said that, it’s positive that the subjects recovered from at least some of the changes related to shift work disorder observed in the study.”

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Maridav

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