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!
- 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!