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Hey, Colleague: How do I stay healthy as a night-shift worker?

Your abnormal work hours may be disrupting your circadian clock, leading to bad eating habits and fatigue. But don't worry, our bodies are adaptable and resilient.
shiftworker
There are a number of things nighttime workers can do to set themselves up for success, including sticking to a consistent sleep/wake schedule.

Send questions about careers, productivity and work-life balance to kpn@glaciermedia.ca. Please include your name and location, or request to remain anonymous.


Hey Colleague, 

I’m a nurse and have to work night shifts. I find that I’m tired and moody most of the time and my waistline is getting bigger. I’m can no longer control my appetite and I feel like I have no energy to do anything. What can I do?!

—Anonymous


First of all, I just want to say to all you nurses, doctors, taxi drivers, security guards, police officers, ambulance drivers — and other professionals that burn the midnight oil: we are all grateful for the work that you do!

I don’t want to alarm you but I think we all have to hear uncomfortable truths. Your brain can’t find solutions until it understands the root of the problem.

Your abnormal work hours may be disrupting your circadian clock.

Our bodies operate on a natural biological rhythm called the circadian rhythm. Our internal clock works in cycles of 24 hours in accordance with sunrise and sunset that regulates many physiological processes such as sleep, metabolism and immune function. During the day, the retina in your eyes perceives sunlight and signals to the brain to release chemicals to keep you feeling alert and energized. As the light fades with the sunset, melatonin is produced, which induces feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, signalling to your body it is time to go to bed.

When that becomes misaligned, consequences such as increased health risks will occur leading to a greater risk of workplace errors, accidents or injuries. Emerging studies suggest a disruption in circadian rhythms leads to chronic disease and cancer.

As you’ve probably already guessed, we are very connected to the earth and everything around us. But the way our society works makes us forget how we have to honour the fact we are all creatures of Mother Earth. 

Here are other risks of a disrupted circadian clock:

  • fatigue 
  • disrupted metabolic health
  • mental health disorders
  • sleep disorders
  • decreased cognitive abilities 
  • weakened immune system
  • poor decision-making and reflexes
  • bad eating habits

Don’t worry! Our bodies are adaptable and resilient and only need a consistent routine. You can learn to develop other healthy habits during your on and off work routines because habits compound.

It’s important to be alert and focused during work and have the chance to get your body well-rested off work. Here are some tips that may help you:

Before work

Set yourself up for success.

The goal is to eliminate as much stress as possible because your circadian rhythm is already disrupted.

Take a quick nap before work.

If you can’t sleep, try to relax and meditate in a dark room so you will feel more alert during work.

At work

Take naps. Take power naps that are 10 to 20 minutes long for a restorative sleep without drowsiness after waking. You may end up feeling groggy with anything over 20 minutes.

Fuel your body

You are what you eat! I became a holistic nutritionist as a side gig because I am so passionate about wellness and what I put into my body. Cut out processed foods and sugar because they add inflammation to an already stressed-out body. Protein (eggs, chicken, almonds, fish) and healthy fats (avocado, salmon, olive oil) will keep you full and prevent snacking. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains keep your digestive health on point.

Move around

Get up and walk around at regular intervals. Chat with your coworkers. This will prevent you from getting tired from sitting for too long and give you a chance to exercise your body and feel more alert.

Know when to caffeinate

Use caffeine at the beginning of your shift but try not to consume anymore at least four hours prior to the end of your shift to ensure you can go to sleep right when you get home.

Off work

Sleep right away to catch up on sleep.

Quality sleep is so important. The problem is when you go home after a night shift, cues from your internal body clock and daytime light exposure tell you to be active and awake. Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep to function optimally and if not, we accumulate sleep debt. The best option is to catch up on sleep as much as possible because sleep is when your body does all its repair and rejuvenation work. 

Darkness matters: optimize your sleep environment

Exposure to light during bedtime will disrupt melatonin production. If you are working consecutive night shifts, you will have to sleep during the day. Consider black-out curtains and sleeping masks. New research reveals even a small amount of light from a digital clock, chargers, street lamp, or a hallway light left on will disrupt your quality of sleep because your subconscious is aware of it so your sympathetic nervous system is still activated. I personally wear a sleeping mask and cover any lights from electronics with black tape.

Wear sunglasses or blue light blockers on your way home

Viewing bright or blue light from screens in the evening disrupts melatonin production as your body gets ready for bed. You can wear blue light blockers when you are looking at screens in the evening or even on your way home from work so your body can get ready to sleep. They may look ridiculous but once you stop caring what other people think, your life will get exponentially better! 

Stick to a consistent sleep/wake schedule

Consistency is important because having a routine can train your body to a “new normal.” Ups, downs, and inconsistencies can wreak havoc on our physiological processes which will cause stress and inflammation. If you are on a long or permanent night-shift schedule, maintain a consistent pattern. Try to shift your sleep so you wake up as close to the start of your shift as possible rather than sleeping right when you get home. Take power naps in between. 

Create a 'shutdown ritual'

Create a consistent bedtime routine. Eliminate screens before bed. Take up relaxing activities such as journalling or reading. Install black-out curtains or use a sleeping mask (especially if you are sleeping during the day). Don’t eat three hours before bed because digestion uses up a lot of energy. Don’t drink too many liquids to prevent getting up in the middle of the night. Meditate. Breathwork. Listen to relaxing music or white noise. Put your phone on airplane mode. It’s important to note that an ideal sleep environment is cool at approximately 16-19 C (60-76 F) because our bodies are programmed to experience a slight dip in core temperature, signalling your body it’s time for bed.

Limit caffeine

Caffeine may be necessary at times but should be avoided whenever possible. You may create a cycle of insomnia if you continue to artificially stimulate your system to stay awake. Instead, take naps, spend time outdoors, and do relaxing activities such as walks, reading, yoga or meditation. Downtime may actually increase your energy.

Keep a sleep diary

In case you start to develop shift-workers syndrome, a sleep diary may help your doctor identify problems and monitor their progression over time.

Be nice to yourself

Remember, everything begins with a thought and your brain is listening to every negative thought or criticism you say to yourself. If you are tired or struggling, recognize there is nothing wrong with you and that there is always a solution.

When to see a doctor

There is no one size fits all solution for night-shift workers. Many factors come into play and it’s up to you to hold yourself accountable and to monitor your own wellness and progress. If you suspect that you have a shift-work disorder, consult a health professional if your night shifts begin to disrupt your life or other health issues emerge.

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