Studies show that women who work night shifts for many years have a small increased risk of breast cancer [169-171].
More research is needed to understand which aspects of shift work may impact breast cancer risk. However, one possible reason for the increased risk among these workers is their exposure to light at night.
Melatonin is a hormone in the body that helps control the sleep cycle. During the night, the body produces melatonin and exposure to light at night disrupts this process.
Findings on melatonin levels in the body and breast cancer risk are mixed [172-173]. However, some findings suggest women with lower levels of melatonin may have a higher risk of breast cancer than women with higher levels . Exposure to light at night may increase the risk of breast cancer by suppressing the production of melatonin.
Lowering melatonin levels also can increase the production of estrogen. High levels of estrogen in the body can increase the risk of breast cancer .
These processes in the body and their effect on breast cancer risk among night shift workers are still under study.
Learn more about estrogen and breast cancer risk.
For a summary of research studies on light at night and shift work and breast cancer, visit the Breast Cancer Research Studies section.