Considering the Nutritional Influence on Shift Work

In the rail industry shift work is and will continue to be an essential everyday practice however there are health conditions associated with prolonged and varied shift patterns that can become a concern if they are not addressed.

Below is a list of health concerns associated with prolonged shift work:

  • Obesity and weight gain
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Diabetes and blood sugar imbalances
  • Fatigue and burn out
  • Heart disease
  • Insomnia and sleep disorders
  • Digestive issues
  • Most of these can be avoided or improved by making some good lifestyle choices particularly in relation to sleep, exercise and of course nutrition.

The Circadian Rhythm

The Circadian Rhythm is a natural process that occurs in all our bodies. It 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 processes slow down which reduces our strength, digestion and alertness. Shift work causes the body to go into conflict with this natural rhythm over time and this often results in the previously mentioned health concerns.


Nutrition challenges faced while working a shift

Food choices: Depending on your role within the industry and the environment you are working in it can be difficult on a shift to make good choices. Many train stations offer wall to wall convenience and fast foods that are generally low in nutritional value and don’t offer a lot of variety.

Sugar and caffeine cravings: Irregular hours, lack of sleep and poor food choices can lead to cravings in particular for sugary or carbohydrate laden foods. These provide the body with a quick rise in energy (blood sugar levels) as they are absorbed into the blood very quickly after consumption. Unfortunately, they also tend to lead to an equal drop in blood sugar/energy quite soon after.

Lack of planning: Planning and bringing your own food to work is probably the best bit of advice for any shift worker. This eliminates unnecessary spending and gives you the freedom to choose what is going to give you the most energy throughout your shift.

Nutrition advice for shift workers 

  1. Pack and bring healthy meals and snacks for your shift
  2. Avoid high fat and greasy/spicy foods – in general these food should be avoided but on a night shift our circadian rhythm slows down our digestion during the night and so eating these kind of food over time can lead to digestive issues such as indigestion/heart burn and constipation/diarrhoea
  3. Skip the sweet snacks – as mentioned above consuming sugar can affect digestion and stimulate more cravings
  4. Eat your main meal before leaving the house for your shift
  5. Take scheduled breaks
  6. Drink plenty water – invest in a stainless-steel water bottle
  7. Avoid caffeine – if you must drink it have a coffee at the start of your shift so that it does not affect your sleep once you get home
  8. If you are on a night shift have a very light snack before you go to bed once you are home
  9. Try to eat in a relaxing environment where possible – chew your food well
  10. Avoid alcohol after a shift and before you go to bed – this is very important as often people feel it relaxes them when they get home before they go to bed when it actually disrupts the quality of sleep you get.
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