Shift work, or anything outside of a regular 9 to 5 work day, can often leave you feeling completely depleted. When I was a server working 5pm until 3am, I would wake up the next day simultaneously feeling like I had a hangover and had done an intense leg workout the day before. When you speak with people who work in healthcare or trades, like nurses and construction workers, the consensus is generally the same, and yet everyone accepts that it’s the reality of that line of work.
Shift work is so hard on you because it can disrupt your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s 24 hour internal clock that regulates when you’re tired, alert and even hungry. Because of these strange sleeping and eating habits, it’s not uncommon for shift workers to experience:
Knowing what I know now, I realize that there were many things that I could have done differently to minimize the effects of this type of work. In fact, I started to put some of them into practice near the end of my serving career and they allowed me to balance a full-time day job with part-time serving at night. Below, I’m sharing several health tips for shift workers (or for anyone who works irregular hours for that matter), to help you put a plan in place that can allow you to start feeling your best despite your line of work.
This goes without saying but it really is important that you plan your meals and snacks ahead of time. This includes the food you take to work, as well as the foods you have available when you get home or are done your shift. I recommend going as far as portioning out your serving sizes in individual containers.
Chances are, if you have foods like chips or ice cream ready to be eaten when you get back from a long shift where you’re tired, hungry and have been on your feet for several hours, you’ll be more likely to eat them. If you know this is something you struggle with, keep them out of the house or at least in a place you can’t access them. Instead, have your healthy meal or snacks ready to go.
Eating convenience foods and fast foods only leads to cravings for more of those foods and will create blood sugar imbalances that lead to fatigue and weight gain. Making your own meals gives you greater control over the quality and quantity of the food consumed. Focus on making nutrient dense meals that will fuel you through a long shift.
The best meals to balance blood sugar to give you sustained energy are high protein, have healthy fats, fiber and are low in sugar. Snacks should ideally have a higher protein content than sugar content. Meals should be free of refined carbohydrates like bread, pasta and cane sugar.
Here are some examples of meals and snacks that would fit this profile:
Rather than eating large, heavy meals, which can impact your energy levels and your digestion, especially if you’re working night shifts, try to eat smaller meals and snacks. If you do decide to eat following your shift, keep it light so you don’t disrupt your sleep.
If you’re a part-time night shift worker, adapting to shift work can actually be more difficult than if you worked the same hours every day. It will also likely be harder for you to adjust if during these shifts you have a completely different eating schedule than your regular daily routine. For example, let’s say on a normal day that you have off, you have dinner around 6 or 7pm and then breakfast around 8am the next day, you wouldn’t want to add in a second supper at 1am during your shift. While you do need the extra energy, it can disrupt your digestion and your circadian rhythm, thereby having an impact on the quality of your sleep, your waistline, and your energy levels on the days following your shifts.
Instead, try not to stray from your regular meal times by more than a few hours, either before or after your shift, and pack snacks or a light meal to have during your shift.
Now I know that for some shift workers who work high stress jobs and who rarely get a moment to sit, i.e. ER nurses or doctors, this one can be difficult. However, if you have this option, a large part of healthy digestion is mental, so when you eat on the run or while stressed, your body shuts down digestive function, which can lead to incompletely digested foods and low nutrient absorption. Choosing to sit while eating, or at a minimum taking a few deep breaths, can reduce your stress hormones and can help you become more mindful about your eating decisions and reduce the likelihood of mindless snacking.
While these drinks provide a quick energy fix, they’re only going to leave you feeling drained and depleted later on. Your best bet is to bring a large reusable water bottle with you.
Kombucha or a green juice are good options if water really isn’t enough. If you really need an extra boost, Genuine Health Greens+ Extra Energy can be helpful as it’s a nutrient dense greens formula which provides a boost with extra minerals to support your nervous system. If you have a particularly active job, you can also try Vega Electrolyte Hydrator which is a sugar-free electrolyte drink normally recommended for long workouts (I would argue that some shift work is like doing a long workout!).
Some of you are likely shaking your heads in disbelief at the thought of this one, but making sure you keep up an exercise routine and getting your sweat on when you wake up can actually help you regain your energy levels. If you’re really too exhausted to work out, start with something gentle like yoga or swimming. Exercise also boosts endorphins which can help with mood.
This one isn’t easy, especially if you’re in the service industry, but alcohol after work disrupts your REM sleep, which is the deep sleep that allows your brain to rejuvenate. It can also further dehydrate you and deplete you of some of the minerals needed for energy and quality sleep.
There are a few nutrients that may be especially helpful for shift workers. The first one is magnesium. Magnesium is a muscular and nervous system relaxant and can improve the quality of your sleep following shift work and your energy and mental clarity the following day. It’s also depleted by stress, lack of sleep and physical activity.
A study in the Journal of Circadian Rhythms found that men who worked the night shift have more evidence of oxidative stress in their blood. Oxidative stress is associated with cellular damage and may induce many medical disorders. Vitamin C, present in a variety of colourful raw fruits and vegetables, can help reduce oxidative stress and provide a protective effect.
Melatonin is a chemical your body produces to make you sleepy, but production can be suppressed when you’re exposed to light at night. Supplementing with melatonin may be a good option if you need to get back into a rhythm, just keep in mind you can develop and dependency and it can cause morning drowsiness in some people.
Rotating shift workers also have lower levels of serotonin production, the happiness hormone. One way to increase production is by getting broad spectrum light during the day, but this isn’t always an option for shift workers. I recommend getting your vitamin D levels checked and then supplementing as required. You can also consider supplementing with 5-HTP, another precursor to serotonin. As with all supplements, I recommend consulting your health care provider before incorporating any supplements you may not be familiar with.
These steps should be a good place to start if you’re having a hard time adjusting to shift work. I also know from personal experience that when you’re exhausted, hungry or feeling depleted, it can be really hard to make healthy choices. But like anything health related, the more you work at it, the easier these changes will come! If you're a shift worker struggling with health issues and can't seem to find a routine that's working for you, go ahead and book a complimentary info session with our team to learn more about how we can help you.
Written by: Natalia Bragagnolo, RHN