Just about the time most of us are getting into bed at night, there are millions of Americans (about 15 million) just starting their night job. Nurses, doctors, police and firemen, air traffic controllers, truck drivers, security guards, factory workers, and nursing home personnel are among those working the “third” or “graveyard” shifts keeping our nation chugging along 24 hours, seven days a week.
Anyone who’s currently or ever has worked a nightshift job is all too familiar with the difficulties of barely seeing the light of day. Working a typical shift starting at 11 pm to 7 am, can negatively impact both family and social life. But a growing body of research warns that working overnight is destroying health. The University of Colorado at Boulder has found that eating at night and sleeping by day, influences blood sugar, energy metabolism, and immune functioning making night shift workers more prone to medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers.
In addition, there are all kinds of physical and mental issues with shift work often correlated with the disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm – which signals cells to produce specific hormones at specific times based on a 24-hour day-night cycle. The human body depends on the circadian rhythm of where the sun goes down at night helping the body wind down and then when the sun rises the next morning, helping the body wake up for the new day. But when working the odd hours of a night shift job, this is like trying to reprogram the body which is against the grain of what it wants to do.
Living a night shift type of lifestyle is linked with behaviors that increase cancer risk such as getting insufficient sleep, smoking, eating junk food, and lack of exercise. Night shift work has also been associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and stress. Add to these major health tolls, most night shift workers are chronically fatigued which can increase the risk of car accidents, poor decision making, and worsening mood.
Night shift work no doubt is not ideal but there are certain occupations in which people willing to work odd hours, will always be necessary.
Since working the graveyard shift is taxing to health, what steps can these workers do to take control of their current and future health and wellbeing? Here’s what anyone working a night shift job can do starting today:
Stick to a schedule
Having a routine is not only comforting it’s essential for all of us, especially working through the night. The best routine to carve out is to once home from work, to have set times you sleep during the morning, and to wake up each afternoon. This schedule should be followed even on days off. It’s tempting to revert to living like the rest of us do not work but mixing it up, will only lead to exhaustion and irritability throughout the week.
Blackout the bedroom
To induce sleep easily, it will be necessary to recreate how it normally looks when the sun goes down. That means if you want a full-night’s sleep during the day, you need to hang blackout curtains to keep the sun out. Any hint of daylight will make it quite difficult to fall and stay asleep for any length of time. It also helps to play white noise to block out daytime sounds and activities. Do not allow any electronic devices into the bedroom (cell phones, laptops, TV) and it may help to use aromatherapy like lavender or chamomile. The idea is to make your bedroom a refuge of relaxation.
Smart nutrition tips
Working odd nighttime hours can easily turn into disastrous dietary consequences. Too much caffeine from coffee, sugary beverages, or energy drinks, vending machine food, or grazing on junk food while working, will not support good health long term. Instead prep meals ahead by preparing several days worth of healthy meals ahead of time. Snacks are important but bring your own from home like eating fruits, nuts, string cheese, or veggies to get a natural energy boost. Water should be your main beverage – stay hydrated with at least 8 up to 12 cups a day. Vitamin D status is likely compromised due to lack of sun exposure – be sure to ask your doctor how much of a vitamin D3 supplement to be taking. Also eat high protein foods like peanut butter, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, beef jerky) to keep you alert. Simply snacking on sweets will only make you sleepy and provide few nutrients.
Have a consistent exercise program
Working the night shift may increase your risk for heart disease or obesity. Following a regular, consistent exercise program can help immensely keeping cardiovascular health and weight in control. A well-rounded exercise program should include cardio, strength, and flexibility training for both overall body fitness but also for improving mood and cognitive functioning. Timing exercise can be tricky with a night shift job. Should you exercise when you get home after your shift or before you leave home to go to work? Exercising too close to bedtime may make it difficult to fall asleep so consider working out before your shift rather than after.
Reduce stress to get in the right mindset
Night shift work can be quite stressful so it’s important to actively focus on mental health too. Consider practicing self-care habits such as meditating or journaling allowing time to self-reflect, reconnect with yourself, and better understand how you’re feeling. Spend time in outdoors each day, think more positively, and engage in activities that make you laugh helping relieve stress.