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4 Steps to Managing your Night Shifts

Working night shifts is a challenge for the body and mind and for this reason its vitally important that when working nights people are considering how to care for their personal health and wellbeing. There are four main pillars of individual health that influence each other, sleep, eating, physical activity and mental wellbeing.

Night shift work affects your circadian rhythm, a natural process that occurs in all our bodies. The rhythm involves peaks and drops in the biological processes that control body temperature, blood pressure, digestive function and hormone levels. These biological processes are functioning at their best during the day but once the evening approaches these they slow down reducing our strength, digestion and alertness. Shift work, especially night shift work over time causes the body to go into conflict with this natural rhythm and if not managed well can result in a variety of health concerns including obesity, type 2 diabetes, digestive issues and high cholesterol.

Below are some simple considerations based around the four pillars of health mentioned above. The aim of this advice is to support the body through shift work so that you can feel your best and keep yourself well despite the disruption to the natural cycle of the body.

1. Sleep well

Sleep is unfortunately an often-over-looked vital pillar of optimal health and wellbeing. Our bodies are designed to sleep at night, our temperature decrease, our digestion takes a back step and most of our healing, repair and growth takes place during this time. If you have worked during the night, then it is so important that the sleep that you do get in between shifts is sufficient and restorative. Below are some tips for ensuring this happens:

  • Set your bedroom up for optimal sleep quality, invest in blackout curtains, keep the lights dim, ensure the room is well ventilated
  • Adults need 7-9 hours sleep to function at their best – be sure to set aside this amount of time to sleep
  • Avoid alcohol, smoking and caffeine before getting into bed – all are stimulants which will delay sleep or reduce the quality of sleep
  • Don’t delay going to bed – delaying sleep can increase alertness making it harder to drift off
  • Use ear plugs and an eye mask if there is likely to be any noise/light that might disturb you

2. Eat well

We know that the circadian rhythm involves a significant slowing of digestive processes during the night so this then must be considered when managing night shifts through diet. Try sticking to the following basic tips for optimal eating patterns when working nights:

  • Avoid eating heavy meals or spicy fatty foods before you leave to go on your night shift and throughout the shift as this can lead to drowsiness/fatigue and can upset the digestive system
  • Stick to light meals and snacks, full of nutrients but easy to digest
  • Avoid sugary foods and snacks – they can give a quick boost of energy but ultimately can lead to energy drops
  • Keep hydrated and be careful with caffeine intake – water can have the biggest positive impact on energy levels and alertness and is often overlooked. Caffeine can stimulate for 8 hours after consumption
  • If you can, take your break and eat slowly and mindfully, consider that your digestion is poor during the night and your body needs all the help it can get

3. Move your body

Working nights can have a big impact on an existing exercise regime or prevent one from existing at all. However, being physically active can have a very positive impact on your body’s ability to cope with the strain of night shift work. Try the following to ensure you are fitting in some physical activity despite working outside of normal hours:

  • Once you wake up after your scheduled sleep go for a brisk 20-minute walk to blow off the cob-webs
  • If you can, avoid being sedentary for your whole shift, if you are desk based get up regularly and walk around and do some basic stretches to keep your circulation pumping
  • Walk, cycle to work if its possible of take the stairs as often as you can during your shift
  • Use free online resources like YouTube for yoga stretches, classes of various lengths or home-based exercise tips
  • Treat your exercise like a very important appointment that you cannot afford to miss – your body and mind will thank you for it

4. Consider your mind

We know how night shifts can impact our physical body but what about our mental wellbeing? Night shifts can affect our mental health in a variety of ways, for example feeling isolated, lone working, abuse from the public, lack of social interaction with family and friends and anxiety/depression from disruption to the circadian rhythm. Look after your precious mind by trying the following:

  • Follow the tips for optimal sleep, nutrition and exercise as all of these will impact your mental wellbeing significantly
  • Aim to get out in the fresh air and daylight for as long as you can during the day once you are awake. Vitamin D deficiency is common amongst regular night shit workers and lack of daylight can induce low mood
  • Try to spend time engaging with family members or friends in between shifts and on days off – social interaction is vital for optimal mental wellbeing
  • Try a mindfulness meditation practice – it many sounds challenging but it is as simply as sitting, breathing and observing your breathe – start at 5 minutes, expect plenty of thoughts coming up and don’t expect perfection
  • Talk to someone if you are feeling low, find out more information here.
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