Our minds and bodies are meant to be in sync with the daytime sunlight and the nighttime darkness. Something called our circadian rhythms have adapted over time in response to external timed cues, such as presence of light and eating. Chemical reactions take place as our circadian rhythms react to these external factors and give us feelings of energy or tiredness.1 Internally you can feel disruptions in digestion, muscle soreness and headaches. Seasonal changes, such as fall and winter, can trigger symptoms of depression and even something called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. These symptoms are seen more often in women than men, and usually will resolve as the dark months turn to spring and summer.2 But what happens if your work schedule won’t allow for normal cycles of day and night?
As a former night nurse myself, I remember years of feeling the fatigue and lethargy of living “The Vampire Life”— awake all night, sleeping all day. Even on the days/nights I wasn’t working, I just felt tired ALL THE TIME. I found myself going to the doctor, checking my hemoglobin, iron, thyroid, and on and on.
Finally, I started reading about the impact of shift work on persons who work night shift. Yikes! It was real. Numerous studies4 have found links between diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, cancer and injury, all connected to disturbed sleep-wake cycles from shift work. The thing is, we need the nighttime shift work of health care professionals, police officers, factory workers, maintenance professionals and more. Well, we have to fight back as much as we can.
The best way to win a fight is to be prepared. Start by having a conversation with your health care provider— make sure they are aware of your work schedule and see if they have appropriate recommendations for you. Even though you can’t control the sunlight or your work schedule, there are many modifiable factors you CAN control5 in order to preserve your health.
REST up for your shift in a completely dark room, consider pulling the shades and creating a dim to dark environment even in the hall if you need to get up to use the bathroom during the day in order to avoid light-confusion before heading back to bed. During your night shift, utilize even 15-30 minutes of a break to take a quick nap.
EAT food that is light and easy to digest. Remember, your organs work differently when the circadian rhythms are disrupted, so stick to simple foods you know are easy on your body.
DRINKING plenty of water and tea is important in feeling refreshed and hydrated. Caffeine is appropriate in moderation, but make sure you do not drink any within four hours of your desired sleep time so as not to disrupt the cycle further. Avoiding alcohol on your days off is important, as the inner effects often linger for a few days.
SUPPLEMENT as appropriate with light therapy, melatonin, 5-HTP or other suggestions your health care professional might suggest.
WORKPLACE modifications in lighting and noise can help, too. When appropriate, suggest using dimmer lights and decrease noise in order to keep from being over stimulated and stressed out.
WORK OUT for a boost of energy before your shift.
How I Made It On the Night Shift
I found out the hard way that working nights affects your health— I gained around 30 pounds and felt downright depressed. After finally figuring out the problem, I was able to create a solution. My diet consisted of small meals throughout the time I was working.
SMALL MEAL/SNACK EXAMPLES
• Greek yogurt
• Peanut butter and a rice cake
• Hummus and cut veggies
• Fish with white rice
• Salad with light dressing
• Lentils with cooked vegetables
• Soft fruits (bananas, peaches, pears)
• Cottage cheese
• Oatmeal with a scoop of protein
Conquering the Night Shift with Dey
Workout created by Shannon Dey, M.S., fitness expert and founder of Bombshell Fitness.
Perform each exercise one after another in one giant set. Perform the giant set three or four times depending on fitness level.
10 x Squat/Reverse Lunge Combo
Lower into a wide squat position, keeping your knees behind your toes. Come up out of the squat, and then reverse lunge right then left. Push through your heels to engage those glutes and hams. Repeat.
10 x Jack Squats
Perform a jumping jack, but when legs go out, lower into a squat.
10 x Lateral Single-Leg Jumps
Begin with feet together. Jump laterally, pushing off with left foot and land on right foot. Then jump off the right foot and land on the left.
10 x (each leg) Walking Lunges
Step forward into a lunge position with the right leg, then push off through the front heel to stand up and repeat with the left.
10 x (each leg) Quad BURN Lunges
With feet together, squat all the way down to the ground. From this position, lunge forward into a deep lunge and then return to the starting position. Then, lunge forward with the other leg. Keep alternating lunges. Make sure to keep low throughout the movement and don’t let the knee come over the toe in the low lunge. If you have bad knees, perform alternating lunges at a quick pace.
10 x V-up Crunches
Holding the V-up position, perform small pulse crunches, keeping your chin off of the chest and shoulders off the ground.
1. Rozov, S. V., Porkka-Heiskanen, T., & Panula, P. (2015). On the Role of Histamine Receptors in the Regulation of Circadian Rhythms. Plos ONE, 10(12), 1-14.
2. Williams, N. (2006). 10 tips on… Seasonal affective disorder. Practice Nurse, 32(6), 24-27 3p.
3. Stevens, R. G., Brainard, G. C., Blask, D. E., Lockley, S. W., & Motta, M. E. (2014). Breast cancer and circadian disruption from electric lighting in the modern world. CA: A Cancer Journal For Clinicians, 64(3), 207.
4. Merkus, S. L., Holte, K. A., Huysmans, M. A., van Mechelen, W., & van der Beek, A. J. (2015). Nonstandard working schedules and health: the systematic search for a comprehensive model. BMC Public Health, 151-15.
5. Pepłońska, B., Burdelak, W., Krysicka, J., Bukowska, A., Marcinkiewicz, A., Sobala, W., & … Rybacki, M. (2014). Night shift work and modifiable lifestyle factors. International Journal Of Occupational Medicine & Environmental Health, 27(5), 693-706.