It’s a Big Ol’ Pile of ‘Shift’ Work

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shift button

It’s 7 pm, most people are winding down after a full day’s work and are looking forward to hitting the sack in a few hours.  These folks have been up since 6 am, when they woke from a full night’s sleep.  While this is likely the story for most of us, the reality is that the world doesn’t stop between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am.  While we’re all sawing logs, there are a bunch of folks just kicking off the day.  Yep, you know what I’m talking about here – it’s the night shift and it’s got to be manned (or woman-ed).  There are over 8 million people in the good ol’ US of A that burn the midnight oil working the night shift.  It’s work that has to be done – like it or not.  What does this have to do with health? Well, if this paleo lifestyle gig has taught us anything (you know, beside the fact that we shouldn’t eat OREOs and pasta) it’s that sleep is a MAJOR factor in our health, weight, and overall stress levels and that’s just the beginning.

There have been numerous studies linking shift work with increased risk for diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, weight gain, and abnormal (often shortened) sleep periods.  Being awake when it’s dark and sleeping when the light-bulb in the sky (that would be the sun, Einstein) is on messes with our circadian rhythm, hormones (leptin, insulin, cortisol, etc.), appetite, energy levels and sleep quality.  If you’re a shift worker I’m guessing you know exactly what I’m talking about. Making matters worse these night-owls often slave away in the darkness for 3-4 days in a row and then have 3-4 days off.  Unfortunately, the world doesn’t adjust to accommodate to their schedules, so they have to ‘shift’ their entire pattern in order to interact with the 9 to 5 world.  If the back and forth swing from nights to days and days to nights doesn’t mess with your rhythm then you ain’t got no rhythm… (well, some of us don’t have any rhythm but it has nothing to do with the night shift…)

What is about this ‘shifty’ work that makes it so detrimental to weight loss and health – I mean really, why does it matter so much when you drift off into dreamland? Besides the major effect on the whole circadian rhythm and hormone thing; there are other reasons that working nights leads to weight gain and sometimes downright unhealthy habits. When you’re slaving away all night it’s fairly obvious that you’re not sleeping and since the world runs on SST (standard sunlight time), it often means that sleeping a full 7-9 hours during the day isn’t going to happen.  Case in point – my mom (a nurse) worked night shifts when my brother and I were little.  She would get home in the morning, have breakfast with us (sometimes she would bring donuts from the bakery…  Damn, those were good…) and then lay down.  We’d let her sleep until around 11 am or noon and then I remember standing beside the couch, just watching her sleep.  It was more like a dead stare – which undoubtedly woke her up and was likely a little disturbing.  She might go back to sleep and at best we’d let her make it to 3 pm before we just couldn’t handle it anymore – we needed her AWAKE with us!! On a good day mom maybe, (and that’s a BIG maybe), got 4-5 hours of QUALITY sleep.  Follow this pattern for three days and – HELLO…can you say sleep deprivation. What does this mean for weight and health?  Never fear!  I’m going to tell you… Studies have shown that inadequate sleep has a definite effect on appetite and hunger hormones. In fact, research suggests that not getting enough shut eye may mess with the body’s carbohydrate metabolism resulting in high levels of glucose in the blood. You know what that means…  When your bloodstream is having a glucose party the insulin police get called to shut down the fun. Overproduction of insulin (because big parties make it necessary to call in reinforcement) promotes fat storage and eventually leads to insulin resistance (the insulin force just up and retires…). The next thing you know – you’ve got “the diabetes” (it’s like a life sentence with no chance of parole).

Next up on the ‘shift’ list is the whole late night food scene – think Nightmare on Dorito Street. I remember mom (she’s AWESOME by the way…) always making an ice cream bucket full of popcorn to take to work and share with the other nurses.  All the staff members would bring something, and often it was cake, brownies, cookies, chips, etc. – snacky type stuff to help keep them awake (along with copious amounts of soda and coffee).  Many shift workers report not eating as well on the night shift as they would during the day.  There aren’t a whole lot of food options at work at 3 am and the vending machine is ALWAYS open and ready to drop that bag of M&M’s.  Additionally, shift workers often end up eating more overall due to shorter sleep time. Whether it be more meals or more snacking – too much of anything will eventually ‘weigh you down’.  Couple the lack of sleep and extra (often less than optimal) food to the final factor – decreased exercise – now we’ve got the ‘perfect storm’.  Forty percent of shift workers report no exercise at all and 30% report exercising only once per week (CIRCADIAN). Sleeping during the day, changing schedules from day to night, and long work hours make ‘sweat time’ less than feasible for many. It may seem that shift workers are partly to mostly doomed and while this doesn’t have to be the case – it can end that way if you’re not careful.  In an ideal world (you know, the one with fairies, unicorns and honest politicians), I’d have all of you shift workers tell the boss to take that ‘shifty’ job and shove it.  Unfortunately, the bills must be paid and we (the night sleepers) need you night owls to be on guard.

So for anyone that’s still with me and hasn’t decided to head in for a nap after all of this excitement, let’s talk about what can be done to help combat some of the detrimental health effects of working for the man when you should be working on your beauty sleep. I know your life and schedule don’t cooperate with ideal sleeping patterns, but there are some things you can do to help maximize your lifestyle and every minute of shut eye that you are able to get.

Get Your ZZZ’s

  • Make sleep a priority – you’ll be more productive and healthier in the long run if you sleep now!
  • Give yourself a ‘bedtime’.  If that means 8 am – then it’s lights out (blackout curtains down), no exceptions!!
  • Schedule yourself for AT LEAST 8 hours of shut eye. This will hopefully mean that you get a minimum of 6 ‘quality’ hours.
  • Don’t turn on the TV, computer, phone, video games, etc. when you get off of work, instead relax from your night of labor.
  • Make sure your sleep conditions are optimal – this means a completely dark room (blackout curtains, eye mask, etc.) that’s cool and quiet. Your bed and bedroom should be pet, TV, computer, phone and child free.
  • Remember that sleep is more important than squeezing in a workout and if you don’t sleep at least six hours, waking up to make it to the gym shouldn’t be a priority.
  • Try a magnesium citrate or ZMA supplement pre-bed to help you relax and to improve sleep quality. Natural Calm is a great option here.

Are You Hungry??

  • Treat the night hours like you would the day – this means 3 main meals. Have ‘dinner’ before your shift or in the early evening, ‘lunch’ will be midnight (or mid-shift) and then have ‘breakfast’ before you hit the sack.
  • If the cafeteria is closed or the food options are, well, not exactly what we’d classify as ‘food’ (I’m talking about crinkly packages with Fritos or Famous Amos printed on them); make sure you bring food from home.  Being prepared is everything!  A wise man (Benjamin Franklin, I think…) once said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Truer words have never been spoken (at least not in this blog post…)
  • Snacking between meals is fine – just choose the right snacks and keep the portions under control.  Two cups of almonds = overkill.
  • Make sure your meals and snacks are balanced – this means protein, fat and veggies. Some fruit is fine, but don’t eat it ‘stand-alone’ – you’re setting yourself up for an energy crash if you do.
  • Stay hydrated! I’m talking good old H2O here. Avoid caffeine, especially during the last half of your shift, so that that you’ll be able to sleep when it’s quittin’ time. Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, Red Bull will NOT give you wings – Sorry!

Exercise

  • If your sleep and/or food are off – then exercise is going to be the least of your worries. Make sure you prioritize pillow time and fill your tank with clean burning fuel before you even think about hitting today’s WOD or spin class (humor me people –it’s a diverse audience)
  • So you’ve got the sleep and food in line – well, then by all means hit the gym or just get moving. Be careful not to run yourself into the ground though. The last thing you need is even more whacked out hormone levels and stress!
  • If you can’t make sleep, good food AND the exercise all fit into your ‘shifty’ world – prioritize the first two and do what you can on the exercise. If that means it only happens on your days off it’s okay. Try to move and incorporate exercise into your work night. Walk during slow periods, take the stairs, and schedule ‘movement breaks’ every hour. You can do push-ups and squats ANYTIME, ANYWHERE!!

So yeah, I know working nights is a big ol’ pile of ‘shift’ work and it’s not the ideal situation in any way, shape, or form; but it shouldn’t be an excuse to let your health go down the tubes. Do the best that you can in your current situation and know that you won’t necessarily be dealing with this ‘shifty’ stuff forever (unless you particularly enjoy it and choose to).  Maximize the sleep time you do have and do your best to keep overall stress as low as possible. Eat a solid paleo diet, don’t rely on caffeine to keep you awake and give yourself a break. Right now you may not be able to achieve the degree of leanness that you’d like or be a fire-breather in the gym – but you can do everything possible to maximize your health regardless of your less than optimal situation.

Now that’s some healthy ‘shift’ talk!

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  1. Sara
    March 6, 2013 at 9:51 am

    This is an AWESOME, and very much needed article! Thanks for not only summarizing how nights are hard on us, but also clarifying what can be done to try and combat it! I especially like the emphasis on setting priorities, since that was a huge key in me finding a semblance of balance during nights.

  2. jenn
    March 6, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Thanks for bring this topic “to light”. I’m a 911 dispatcher and busy mom of teens that routinely puts in 12.5 hour shifts and I’m quite familiar with being awoken by the stare of a lovely child that just needs some Mom time. I’m slowly trying to make my co-workers more aware of healthy diets and paleo style snacks but it’s an uphill battle. The sleep thing….well I have 5 more years until my youngest graduates. Hopefully it might improve then ;)

  3. Bentley
    March 8, 2013 at 1:08 am

    Fantastic article! I work 7 pm to 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning in a warehouse, and some of this advice is quite useful.

  4. Mike
    March 8, 2013 at 8:41 am

    I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about Natural Calm, so make sure you know what you are doing. (http://paleohacks.com/questions/32450/natural-calm-of-death#axzz2Mxy6CEKG)

    I work shifts, and I can definitely relate. There is something I would add to the sleep section – ear plugs during day-sleep and if you are working with computers – run f.lux like 3 hours before you end your shift. It disables blue light coming from your screen, and there is some hormonal reaction to that that is beneficial for your sleep.

  5. Jackie
    March 8, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Love the article. My job requires that I rotate from day shift to night shift every four months. My body never adjusts and I am always tired. I hope some of these suggestions will help me out.

  6. Tricia
    March 8, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Great article! I don’t work nights, but I think this article provides good advice for all of us. Particularly in prioritizing sleep and diet over getting to the gym.

  7. Gareth Hanson
    March 8, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Excellent article Rob.

    I don’t work shifts. I don’t even know anyone that works shifts. I do follow the paleo lifestyle (well with a bit of milk and cheese thrown in).

    I just find your posts both inspiring and entertaining. Informative with just the right amount of humour.

    Loved ‘The Paleo Solution too’.

    Keep up the good work :-)

    Cheers, Gareth

    • Amy Kubal
      March 8, 2013 at 4:09 pm

      Thank you Gareth!!

  8. Serg
    March 8, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Great article. I’ve been working the night shift for five years from 9pm to 0830 7 nights a week then off seven nights. Health and relationships take a far back seat! By night 4 I’m as cranky as I can be. Thank you for the tips.

  9. Marlaina
    March 8, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Your post is a good reminder, thanks. We’re not paleo, but I try to lean that way.

    My husband and I drive long haul 48 states and Canada and he is the night driver. We split our 12 hour shifts at 3AM and 3PM to share the night driving. But he sees more darkness than me. I give him dinner about 6PM, hors d’oeuvres, vegetables, hummus, moutabel, cheeses, lean meats, etc., leave him a dinner sandwich to have about 10PM and another snack for 2AM. About eight months ago we quit sugar, which makes a huge difference, and I lost a little more than 10 pounds. I probably eat too much fruit, fresh and dried and almonds, but it’s better than cookies!

    You’re right, when I don’t get enough sleep, I eat, and eat and eat the next day.

  10. Walt
    March 8, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Thanks for the article, would like to see more helpful hits like zma supplement, I have 2-12hrs day /2-12hrs night with 4 days off. I also have been trying intermittent fasting from 8:00PM to 2:00 PM. Show me I impulse eat.

  11. William L. Wilson, M.D.
    March 8, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    I probably have one of worst work schedules in the world. I work as a Hospitalist and I work seven 12-hour days in a row in a stressful, acute care hospital. On my week off, I often pick up night shifts. There have been months where I worked 30 twelve-hour days in a row with shifts all over the map. With this schedule my body often doesn’t know whether it’s on foot or horseback!

    Recent research has shown that food loaded with sugar, HFCS, grain-based high glycemic carbohydrates and omega 6 fatty acids (we’re talking standard American junk food here) can have an adverse affect on brain function, leading to low levels of monoamine neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. When you have low levels of serotonin in your brain, you will also end up with low levels of the sleep hormone melatonin because melatonin comes from serotonin. Thus if you eat too much junk food, you won’t sleep well regardless of how dark you make the room.

    Despite my schedule, I seem to be doing fine. My weight is stable, I have lots of energy and my brain function is better than ever. I am very careful with my diet (Paleo of course) and when I get home from a night shift I use a high dose melatonin rectal suppository—the most effective way to get melatonin into your body. Melatonin is also a very potent antioxidant.

    The bottom line is if you want to sleep well, pay careful attention to what you are eating.

    • Amy Kubal
      March 8, 2013 at 4:07 pm

      GREAT MESSAGE!! Thank you! :)

  12. Ryan
    March 8, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Exactly what I was looking for to help some of my clients that work nights. Thanks!

  13. Steve
    March 8, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Wicked article. It is nice to know that those of us that work nights haven’t been completely forgotten. Considering that we don’t get much exposure to sunlight, should we take a vitamin D supplement? Anyone care to elaborate or that? Thanks!

    • Amy Kubal
      March 8, 2013 at 4:07 pm

      A vitamin D supplement is a GREAT idea!!!

  14. Debbie, RN
    March 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for this article. As a RN working nights, I (obviously) don’t have the option of telling the boss what to do with the “shifty” hours (especially since I CHOOSE to work nights, for a variety of reasons). I appreciate the reminder to eat properly, sleep, and (if necessary) exercise on days off. I’m lucky; my hospital’s cafeteria is open until 0300. I can fix myself a nice paleo-friendly salad.

  15. Emily
    March 8, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Thank you for the article. I too am a night shift RN. I work trauma so I really do not have a lot of sitting time at work. But, I like the idea of taking stair or squat breaks. (I am NOT touching the floor to do push ups. Yuck!)
    I also appreciate you taking the time to inform us of the priorities we need to set to help us physically succeed. Usually between work (12 hrs), commute each way (1 hr) and sleep (ideally 8 hrs) that only leaves 3 hours for normal “life” stuff like walking the dog, preparing food, paying bills, taking a shower. There is just not enough time to workout as well unless you cut sleep.
    I guess my point is thank you for letting us know it is ok not to workout on these days as long as we are placing the priorities on diet and sleep. Not feeling pressure to get in a workout will help ease some anxiety for this girl, which I am sure will help with sleep. :)

  16. Logan
    March 8, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you for highlighting the different challenges some of us face. It can certainly be a logistical effort get in enough sleep, proper nutrition, your WOD’s, and the rest of life!

    The sleep schedule is definitely my most difficult adjustment. We work rotating shifts: 5 days 6am – 3pm, then 5 days 10pm – 7am, then 5 days 2pm – 11pm. If I get 6 actual hours of sleep I consider that good.

    Since my ‘day’ is always moving, there are many times when I do not really feel like eating anything. To combat this, I make a timetable of when my meals should be and plan to eat according to that timetable even if I do not feel hungry. I always pack my ‘lunch’ so I therefore have control over my nutrition while at work.

    There are still plenty of days when I am simply too exhausted to get in a proper workout. But when I stick to my plan for sleep and nutrition I have been able reduce the frequency of days where I am ‘too tired to workout’.

  17. Petra
    March 11, 2013 at 1:58 am

    Hi Amy,

    Thanks for writing this article for us shift-workers. Its 4:30 am and I’m working at the hospital right now! Time and time again I’ve read paleo articles recommending to get regular, normal-people sleep, which is something I am not able to do! Thanks for your recommendations on how to optimize my schedule. I’d also like to share some things that I’ve found work for me:
    - I stop eating by 3 am, and don’t eat anything before hitting the sack. I’ve found my carb cravings are always kind of crazy in my last few hours, and this is the best way to prevent me from stuffing my face with cookies.
    - I go straight to bed afterwards. No distractions.
    - I use an eye mask, ear plugs, and a fan when I sleep.
    - I drink a lot of water and tea while at work.
    - I stash very dark organic chocolate in my locker for nights when the coworkers bring junk.
    - I set up a work out station in the basement, just so I could fit in a 20 min crossfit style WOD before work. It can be done. I feel so much better before work if I get my blood pumping.

    If anyone else has some suggestions, I’d be glad to hear them!

  18. Kelly Williams
    March 11, 2013 at 3:56 am

    I’ve worked on a graveyard shift before and I mean, its so hard to keep you level-headed especially if you don’t have enough sleep or if your new wake up time and work time doesn’t really suit you. Over-all productivity is affected, not only your work but also your overall health. You may not feel it now or in a couple months but in the long run your body would eventually weaken. Thats the case for me though.

  19. CJ
    March 18, 2013 at 6:54 am

    Thanks for recognizing this problem. Fortunately, I don’t have to work shifts anymore, but I do painfully remember how it took a toll, not only on my body, but on my mind, too.

    It’s not always possible to schedule yourself for 8 full hours of sleep-hard as you may try. After a few days without proper sleep (and nutrition) there just isn’t enough “get up and go” to even THINK about exercise.

    For me-I changed my thinking about exercise, to include STRETCHING for about 20 minutes right before I went to bed, and again when I got up-for those times when everything I needed was being cut short (sleep, good food, exercise).

    Hope that tip helps someone.

    • Amy Kubal
      March 18, 2013 at 8:03 am

      Awesome tip CJ! Thanks for adding it!

  20. Dana
    March 21, 2013 at 1:03 am

    I will never give up on sleeping! It is my energy source, relaxation and my quality time with a bed.

  21. Brent
    March 22, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I love the comment about keeping exercise in perspective. Whenever I’m trying to really dial in my weight, the first thing I do is reduce my exercise output and really make sure I’m sleeping and eating the way I know makes me feel better. Being active is important, but it’s all too often a band-aid that doesn’t address the issue. Once diet and sleep are improved, exercise is an amazing tool.

  22. Julio Yohe @ curechronicpain.org
    March 29, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    Great article, Amy! Actually, this is my problem. I’m not getting enough sleep because of my work during the night and I feel so lazy during the day. But, I’m still motivated to do workouts. I am aware that I can get negative health effects out of these bad practices but I can’t do anything about it. As a matter of fact, I experienced a lot of back pains lately and I’m pretty sure that sleep deprivation contributed to this. Anyway, I will try to make some adjustments in the future. Thanks for sharing! :-D

  23. Ed
    April 1, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Hi Robb,

    Great discussion here. Having worked shift work before in the past, I can say that the experience is not really that good. When you are young, you may be able to take it. But once you get older, you start to feel the effects.

    Ed

  24. ALS
    April 5, 2013 at 4:57 am

    THANK YOU SO MUCH! I have been waiting for a real-life paleo night shift piece for a while! Everything I have come across runs along the lines of “quit your job”. Not happening! I chose night shift and truly enjoy it.
    Paleo has been a huge part of my life; however, when I started my job as a nightshift critical care nurse I succumbed to night shift potlucks and the 24/7 junk food shop. Adjusting to this lifestyle has put diet on the back burner and whattya know I’ve suffered. Now I have nailed down a good (ha, well, for us) sleep schedule I am now focusing on diet and exercise again! So this was so timely and helpful!

  25. Salima
    April 8, 2013 at 1:31 am

    Hi!,
    A vitamin D supplement is a GREAT idea!!!This is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for your informative and eye-opening post.

  26. Morey
    April 10, 2013 at 5:58 am

    Thanks for the info. It’s so important to get enough rest and exercise no mater what your work schedule. And, it’s true you are what you eat. If you eat properly, your metabolism will work properly and you will feel better and become healthier.

  27. Gary
    April 12, 2013 at 12:47 am

    Hi Robb,
    Thank you for this article. I have been working weird and wonderful shifts for a long time now and I definitely feel worse after doing these. I am a saturation diver who works in the North sea, UK. We work a shift which allows 4 teams to go around the clock for a 24 hours period. This means we can be diving anytime really. This allows us to have roughly 20 hours off but trying to arrange a sleep pattern is very difficult. We don’t really have problems with getting food but most of the guys will only eat two meals a day. I try to eat as much as possible as i try to get a little training in so I don’t struggle when i get home to Crossfit.
    It’s hard when you are living in a decompression chamber for a one month at a time. But I do feel the body is a wonderful thing and it can adapt. I take supplements like vitamin D as we have no natural sun light, and I feel this certainly helps and also take fish oils and magnesium. My worse trait is coffee and i need to stop after a certain time so i can sleep properly!!
    Due to breathing Helium/oxygen we have a low red blood cells when we come out of our chamber so I feel a bit crap(It’s like jet lag)but after a week or so I spring back to life and ease my way back into my WODS.
    Thanks again and if you come across any paleo eating/crossfit deep sea divers let me know :)

  28. cat hanson
    April 19, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    thanks for the great tips. My weakness is also coffee. But I figure, better that than cheeseburger.. :D

  29. Cindy
    April 23, 2013 at 12:18 am

    My husband is a shift worker and he has found weight gain one of his biggest problems and the lack of good quality sleep raises the risk of car accidents to and from work. Thanks for the good advice.

  30. Amanda
    April 29, 2013 at 12:26 am

    This is great advice!

    I have been working 4pm to 4am 3 days a weeks for about 3 years now. I loved it at first, then it started to weigh on me (in more ways than one). When I started eating paleo and working out, I noticed a change in my sleep quality in about 2 weeks.

    I would sleep through whole 20 hour periods on my days off. Now, I naturally wake up after 6 – 8 hours and I feel great!

  31. John Ward
    June 29, 2013 at 4:54 am

    Absolutely great advice. Much needed article. For one who also works shifts I have printed out the article. One of my main worries which I need to address has been highlighted by Cindy above – ” the lack of good quality sleep raises the risk of car accidents to and from work.”

    J

  32. Pinky
    September 13, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    I don’t really have problems with shift work if it was just one shift per week that I work, but it’s not. I work from 6am to 10pm on Saturday and Sunday followed by a graveyard shift on Monday from 10pm to 6am. I love my job, but I feel like all I do all week is shift adjust. Can someone help?

    • Robb Wolf
      September 14, 2013 at 8:15 am

      Trying to get a single schedule can help. Graveyard only for example. Protect the sleep you do get. Keep an eye out for doc Parsley’s sleep book.

  33. Jon
    February 15, 2014 at 5:52 am

    Great article, but I’m not sure if it exactly applies to me. I’m in the military and every night I get woken up to either stand guard or take part in some other duty and occasionally get active and sweaty from 2-4am after 2 hours of sleep, then go back to sleep from 5-7am before having to do it again…and again… And again. Thinking about getting out soon so I can live a more ideal lifestyle. Maybe selfish, but someone needs to look out for #1. Always appreciate the advice.

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