In my early twenties, I loved the night shift. It was great to be able to sleep all day and stay up all night, plus the added bonus of there being less traffic during commutes and no lines at Starbucks.
Roughly 20% of the full-time workforce in the United States is involved in some form of shift work. While a few true night owls might prefer this schedule, working the night shift can be challenging for some people.
So if you’re wondering how to work the night shift and stay healthy, there are several tips and tricks for doing so. While it can be really difficult to stay on top of it, it does not mean that it’s impossible.
How to Work the Night Shift and Stay Healthy
1. Stick to a Routine
Even on your days off, sticking to your same wake and sleep routine can be very beneficial. This can help you avoid shift work sleep disorder (SWSD), a common circadian rhythm problem that can cause both insomnia and excessive sleepiness for those who work the night shift.
The word “circadian” means to occur in a cycle of 24 hours. It’s your sleep-wake cycle. Your body’s clock uses these rhythms to signal when it is time to go to sleep or when it is time to wake up. This tends to occur at regular times every day.
Among other factors, your clock is “set” by your exposure to sunlight which keeps the clock’s timing close to the day/night cycle.
Occasional circadian disruption usually has only minor health consequences, such as disrupted sleep or daytime fatigue. But chronic disruption can lead to serious diseases, including Type 2 diabetes and various cancers. It also can cause suppressed immune function, cognitive deficits, weight gain, and premature aging.
If you want to return to a more normal schedule after your last overnight shift of the week, try going to sleep in the morning but also getting up in the early afternoon and staying active until a more normal bedtime.
Take power naps during the next couple of days. Then, on your last free evening, stay up as late as possible, sleep in, and maybe even take a long nap before your first night shift.
2. Set Boundaries
It’s a good idea to let people know what hours you’re working and when you will be sleeping, so they know when to leave you alone. Post your work and sleep schedule somewhere your family members can easily see when you are trying to sleep and when they can expect to see you.
For those in your household, ask them to refrain from doing any noisy activities like vacuuming, washing dishes, or watching TV on max volume while you sleep. Put your smartphone on “Do Not Disturb” so your screen will not be lighting up frequently with new emails, messages, or phone calls.
Try to find a daily meal you can share with your family members so you can stay connected even during the days you work to boost your mood and maintain your family bond.
3. Eat Healthy and Stick to a Schedule
Many shift workers eat poorly and at odd times, which can lead to digestive issues. Regular meals are important for your body’s schedule.
Choose three meals per day and spread them out evenly throughout your wake time. If you are hungry between meals, reach for healthy snacks like apple slices with natural peanut butter or a real fruit smoothie.
If you are new to shift work, you may find that you are not hungry during the nighttime hours and starving when you should be sleeping. It is helpful to devise an eating plan.
Plan to eat within one hour of waking and then schedule meals and snacks every three to four hours. This will mean that most people will eat between three to six times per day.
For example, if your shift is 11 pm to 7 am and you wake up at 5 pm, then your eating schedule may look something like this:
- 5-6 pm Breakfast (dinner with family)
- 9 pm Snack
- 3 am Lunch
- 7 am Dinner
Try to reduce or eliminate processed foods and fast foods. Instead, fill your plate with grass-fed pasture-raised beef, chicken, or wild-caught fish, high fiber carbohydrates, and high-quality fats. Avoid eating two to three hours before your bedtime and reduce or eliminate caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
Caffeine can stay in your system for as long as eight hours, so decrease coffee, tea, and other caffeine beverages from the middle of your shift onward. One of the many challenges of working a night shift is access to healthy foods. At night, cafeterias are closed, leaving vending machines, pizza places, and fast-food restaurants as the only available options.
The key to healthy eating at work is making your food at home. It is cost-effective, healthy, and easier than you think.
Here are some tips for making food at home easier: Delicious And Healthy Meals That You Can Prep Within 15 Minutes
4. Take Naps Efficiently
Planning naps efficiently can be key to meeting your sleep needs. It is believed that night shift workers tend to get between two and four hours less sleep each day than the general population. If this sleep deprivation continues for long, it could lead to additional symptoms like headaches, inability to concentrate, and irritability.
Moreover, sleep deprivation can affect your mood, reaction time, and concentration. The effects can lead to a variety of other problems, such as increased sick leave, a higher rate of accidents, and decreased productivity.
Try taking a nap just before reporting for the night shift. Naps have been shown to improve alertness in night shift workers. A nap of about 90 minutes seems to be best according to the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center.
To make the most of your naps, ensure that the room is cool and very dark. Use blackout curtains, sleep masks, and earplugs to help you fall asleep quickly.
5. Limit Stress
We all face stress in our daily lives—stress that ranges from financial stress like paying the mortgage or power bill to emotional stress, such as caring for an elderly parent.
Extended periods of stress can cause destructive changes in the body, such as depression or a suppressed immune system, potentially leading to heart disease, stroke, or cancer.
Forty percent of U.S. workers admit to experiencing office stress, and one-quarter say work is the biggest source of stress in their lives. It is important that we assess the stressors in our lives and work to reduce them for our overall health.
Working the night shift can lead to additional stress, such as poor interaction with friends and family due to misaligned schedules. When faced with the anxiety that sometimes accompanies working shift work, many people turn to tobacco, drugs (both pharmaceutical and illegal ones), and alcohol as coping mechanisms.
While these substances may bring some calm in the short term, they tend to heighten stress and anxiety over the long term. It’s best to avoid them altogether.
To reduce your stress, try implementing a breathwork routine. Slow, deep breaths can help lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduce stress. Other stress-relieving techniques include listening to music, taking a walk in nature, mediation, and journaling.
Plan your exercise routine ahead of time and have it fit into your shift work schedule. Workouts can be planned before work or even after work.
There has been tons of discussion around when the best time to work out is, but the truth is that the best time is whenever you can. The same applies to night shift workers. Aim for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to maximize your results with less time spent training.
HIIT can be performed at home, in a gym with weights, or with your own body weight. Results can be seen within as little as six weeks when performed consistently.
Regular exercise can improve your brain health, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your ability to do everyday activities.
The night shift is an essential part of our society. Many services are available to help care for the needs of the community, day and night. If you are a night shift worker, try these six tips on how to stay healthy while working throughout the night.
Featured photo credit: Jefferson Santos via unsplash.com
|Cleveland Clinic: Shift Work Sleep Disorder
|Cleveland Clinic: Shift Work Sleep Disorder
|PubMed Central: Sleep Loss and Fatigue in Shift Work and Shift Work Disorder
|UCLA Sleep Disorders Center: Coping with Shift Work
|WebMD: Common Causes of Stress.
|CDC: Benefits of Physical Activity