As an emergency room nurse, some people ask me, is it really possible to work the night shift and stay healthy? Whilst our health, in particular our sleep patterns, are put into somewhat of a spin, we can stay in great shape with some key strategies and a few simple tweaks in our current habits.
Staying healthy whilst working the night shift starts with finding a sleep routine that works specifically for you. Then get organized by preparing healthy meals, snacks and energy-boosting beverages, embrace exercise even when you are tired and create time for people who make you happy.
Though you may been isolated on night shift, there are 22 million Americans trying to sleep during the day too, so don’t think for a second you’re doing this alone. Read on as we explore 10 night shift survival tips for staying healthy.
1. Find Your Own Night Shift Sleep Routine
I know it may seem childish, but even us adults need to have a clear bedtime after working a night. It’s tempting to watch another Netflix episode or scroll on your phone for hours on end when tucked up on the couch with a blanket. But it won’t do you any good.
Despite night shift life sometimes going slower than we’d like at 5am, things can get crazy once we get home. Between kids, your spouse, the dog and other household responsibilities, sleep can be easily swept under the rug like your pets toy.
As night shift workers, we’ve totally and utterly confused our circadian rhythm. That’s the clock regulating your wake and sleep cycles plus, an entire range of other bodily processes like digestion. We need to be kind to our already overloaded body clock by making sleep a priority.
Between the precious hours of finishing work and ‘hitting the hay’, try making this period of time look consistently the same by following a few (if not all) of the tips below.
- Don’t fall to sleep on the couch
- Enjoy a nice warm shower
- Use helpful sleep aids such as blue light blocking glasses, eye masks, blackout blinds, biannual music and meditation. We have written an entire post about our favorite sleep aids which is worth checking out here.
- Tuck into a small breakfast free from caffeine or a lot of sugar. We want enough healthy nutrients in our stomachs to stop us waking in a few hours with hunger pains.
- Charge your phone outside your bedroom instead of plugging it in beside your bed to limit the distraction and blue light.
- Organize your to-do-list for either later in the afternoon or on days off and don’t do it between finishing work and going to sleep (if you can help it)
- Take it easy on the number of times you’re consuming sneaky morning beers with your colleagues. In small doses, these hangouts are fine but don’t make it into a weekly habit for the sake of your sleep and liver.
- Read our post on, “how to fall to sleep when you’re not tired” for some added inspiration when you find you’re simply staring at the ceiling. Or jump into reading this post about some weird sleep tips which are surprisingly effective.
- Keeping the same sleep routine on the weekends / days off to limit the strain on your bodies and need to constantly adjust. (source) I didn’t want to believe this either so we wrote a whole post about it here.
This obviously doesn’t blend well with family life. But it does indirectly have an impact on how much energy, love and attention you can give your family and is worth considering.
[VIDEO] – If you are having trouble sleeping on night shift, check out the video we recently recorded for 7 useful tips.
2. Stop Drinking Caffeine 5-6 Hours Before Bed
Did you know that coffee can stay in our system for up to 12 hours?
How can we really expect to sleep like a log when we get home if we’re are still buzzing? And not from work that is…
According to USA Today, 83% of Americans drink coffee daily to keep them feeling alert and energized to tackle the daily grind. You certainly don’t need to look far to see coffee running rampant through the veins of shift workers either!
Despite the caffeine in coffee messing up our sleep cycle, it’s actually good for us – in moderation.
The Good Part About Caffeine:
According to Dr. Axe, coffee is bursting with antioxidants which help fight common toxins and slows down the aging process. We also talk about antioxidants in lemons and how they can boost shift work health – but more on that later.
The Not So Good Bits About Caffeine:
We’ve all experienced that ‘I need a coffee hit’ moment right? Headaches, bad moods, trouble concentrating and digestive issues… Well, caffeine addiction is a real thing. Our bodies become overstimulated, tiring out your adrenal gland leading to complex health issues.
If you have adrenal, thyroid, hormonal issues or ongoing problems with chronic disease, consider giving coffee a wide birth. Your adrenal glands will thank you for it.
Caffeine can also play havoc with your hormones so take it easy if you suffer from anxiety, heart problems and diabetes.
Related post: Night Shift and Caffeine. How To Use It Wisely
How to Work Night Shift and Stay Healthy Tips:
- Stop drinking caffeine in the 4-6 hours before bed if you intend on sleeping. Iced cold water may seem like a dull alternative but it gives me the energy boost I’m often desperate for.
- Buy natural, organic coffee and avoid unnatural and unwanted pesticides being mixed into your brew. Try “Death Wish Coffee” – The “world strongest,” Fair Trade and USDA certified organic coffee – perfect for shift workers! Check it out on Amazon.
- Switch to simple green tea or matcha green tea, for the midnight hours, which is an incredible superfood containing about a third the amount of caffeine as coffee.
3. Get out in the Sun
Three quarters of US teens and adults are deficient in Vitamin D, the so-called, “sunshine vitamin.” But we night shift workers are already at an unfair disadvantage of working overnight and sleeping when the sun’s shining.
Research has even (unfortunately for us) proved this fact by stating,
‘Shiftworkers are consistently reported as being the occupational group most likely to suffer from a deficiency of vitamin D3.” (3)
Our bodies desperately need vitamin D to absorb calcium to help build strong, healthy bones. According to the Cleveland Clinic, Vitamin D also blocks the release of parathyroid hormone which makes bones thin and brittle.
Along with Vitamin D, the sun is also hugely responsible for “resetting” our body clocks and reminding our hormones what time it is. Here is how to get more sun exposure whilst working hard on night shift.
- Shortly after waking from night shift, open your black-out blinds, put on your shoes and go outside to feel the sun on your skin. Better yet, exercise in the sun after night shift and get the best from both scenarios.
- Eat dinner outside before your next shift
- Take your dog for a walk (Yes owning a dog is absolutely possible as a shift worker… find out more here)
Related post: How to Get Enough Vitamin D When Working Night Shift
[VIDEO] – What To Do When Working Multiple Night Shifts In A Row
4. Limit the Blue Light After Night Shift
Despite coming in at #4, this is actually my favorite survival tip for night shift.
We often discuss blue light and it’s effect on our sleep hormone, melatonin, before we close our eyes. But if you’re new to the idea of blue light, it is a color in the visible light spectrum that has very short wavelengths meaning it produces higher amounts of energy.
The issue is that blue light plays games with our sleep hormones, mainly melatonin, keeping us awake when we so desperately want to sleep.
We need blue light during the day to keep our body clocks happy and aware of the time, but it’s not welcome at night. Blue light comes from not only the sun but from our lights, fridge, microwave, laptop, computer, TV and even our phones so it’s hard to escape it. But there is a simple solution.
Wear a pair of blue light blocking glasses.
Dan and I wear Swanwick Sleep’s blue light blocking glasses for 60 – 90 minutes before bed and they work amazingly well. Here are a few pictures of exactly what I’m talking about.
We have tried a few brands but Swanwick Sleep are absolutely the brand we recommend wearing. From comfort to the price you can’t go wrong. See the Swanwick Sleep website here which is where we bought ours from.
5. Move (Even When Tired)
We know we need to exercise and workout daily. And, we also know we need to do it for at least 30 minutes (or 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity) as recommended by the American Heart Foundation.
BUT the challenge for night shift workers is finding the time, energy and stamina to not only fit it in but to complete the entire workout!
Here are some tips which help me and my friends move whilst on night shift.
- Have your activewear out and ready for you by the door. Make exercise be the non-negotiable part of your day and one less decision you need to make. Just like Steve Jobs did by always wearing a black turtleneck and long sleeved shirt.
- Work out as soon as you wake up. Don’t delay the inevitable because you won’t get it done later on.
- Work out after a night shift. I know it seems crazy but it can actually be really effective and not impact your sleep. Find out more in a post we recently published titled, “Sleep Or Workout? What Should I Do After Night Shift?“
- Break up your exercise into bite-sized pieces. Pushups while the kettle is boiling, sit ups while your morning oats are cooking and exercise at your desk if your shift work job forces you to sit for long periods.
- Practice Yoga. Yoga not only tightens your butt and makes you stronger but it also makes you happy! A study published in the International Journal of Yoga found that yoga helps, “enhance muscular strength and body flexibility, promote and improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, promote recovery from and treatment of addiction” (2)
[VIDEO] – This is an example of my favorite online yoga teachers on YouTube. Yoga with Adriene!
6. Don’t Be a Night Shift Recluse
Whilst physically moving and exercise if critical for good, long-term health, we need to look after our mental health too.
Social isolation on night shift can be very real. You can easily slip into the routine of simply eating, working and sleeping if you are not aware of the traps.
Night shift workers are unfortunately at an increased risk of both depression, sleep disturbances, fatigue and diminished well-being. Don’t become another statistic and try our night shift recommendations below.
- Take the lead and organize a social event either during or shortly after finishing night shift. Don’t wait to be asked.
- When out with friends and family put your phone down and focus on what you’re doing and what’s being said to you.
- Hug it out. Hugs release a powerful neurotransmitter called oxytocin often called the “bonding hormone.” It reduces blood pressure and cortisol, which is our stress hormone. If you’re not a ‘hugger’ go get a massage, it has the same effect!
- Do things which make you happy. For most of us, the positions we hold are unchangeable in the short term and we need to learn how to live purposefully with the cards we have been dealt. Take control of your life and do things which make you happy. Don’t sit around in your PJ’s all day feeling sorry for yourself.
- If you like going to the gym and having ‘you’ time while working up a sweat – do it.
- If you like to read outside sitting amongst the plants in your underpants after you wake up mid-afternoon – do it.
- If you miss spending time with your spouse and kids – take them out or organize a special date night at home with Night In Boxes. It has everything you need for a date delivered right to your door! Click on the image below to explore further.
7. Drink More Water During and After the Night Shift
How much water do you normally drink on an average night shift? Is it anywhere near the recommended 3,000 ml (101 ounces) for men and of 2,200 ml (74 ounces) for women?
We know water is essential for life, but why is it such a struggle to drink the recommended amount for night shift workers? Do we get too busy? Do we simply forget our water bottles? Or are we only after coffee for the energy boost?
Here are some simple tips to drinking more water on night shift to stop your organs from having to work harder than they need to.
- Place your water bottle in a place you can visibly see it as a constant reminder to drink up.
- Add fruit! A wedge of lime or lemon will really spice up the average H2O. Also consider oranges, berries or mint for a flavor boost.
- Want only freezing water? Use a high-quality, versatile tumbler as we recommend in our resources page to get the job done.
- Choose water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Drink herbal tea. It’s a simple, healthy way to consume more water.
If you are a true coffee fan and struggle to drink anything but on night shift, this post is titled, What Should I Drink on Night Shift? 10 Energy Boosting Beverages is exactly what you’re looking for.
Somebody once asked me how I stay motivated and “on-top-of-my-game” during a shift and I think it’s about staying hydrated to avoid headaches. This video below explores this so you too can avoid headaches whilst on shift.
8. Treat Yourself Between and After Night Shift
If you’re feeling a little wired from your shift, why not wind down in the bath?
I agree there might be mornings when you can’t be bothered waiting for the bath to fill up but it may be worth taking the time.
According to Healthline taking a long bath may also help reduce inflammation and control blood sugar levels in much the same way exercise does.
Here are some ways you can treat yourself and look after your emotional health whilst working night shift.
- Use Epsom Salts, a natural exfoliant and anti-inflammatory remedy that can be used to treat muscle aches, dry skin and even fight various internal health issues. (2) This band is hugely popular on Amazon and worth a browse here.
- Dim the lights and use candles to prepare your sleep hormones for rest
- Use lavender oil (or use through a diffuser). Lavender has been shown to improve sleep quality, including in people with insomnia, depression and anxiety. It may also increase the time spent in deep, slow-wave sleep. (source)
- Play biennial beats – see what they are here
- Do yoga in the bath – seems strange but if you’re like me and get bored very quickly in the bath, why not try these bath friendly bath poses?
Related post: Night Shift Recovery: Solid Advice You’ll Want To Hear
9. Look After Your Gut Health
You may know that brain and gut are pretty good friends.
Truthfully though, they are more like brother and sister, constantly bickering at each via a complex nervous system. Both trying to fix recurring problems we often feel on night shift like bloating, fatigue, nausea and stomach pain.
Our brains are confused because we’re awake during the night and sleeping during the day and our guts are all flustered because we keep eating complete garbage at 4 am when we should be sleeping.
Our body clock actually prefers we limit what we eat overnight. Stick to consuming your “main meal” before you leave for a shift and have only small, filling snacks overnight. Then enjoy a small, filling breakfast once you get home to avoid waking up hungry.
This will help not only your gut and brain’s relationship but also your heart and the plethora of bacteria in your gut. Make sure you choose your food wisely, not forgetting to throw in plenty of fiber and fruit to keep yourself regular. If you’re having difficulty with this, consider consulting with a naturopathic doctor to help you create a meal plan that works for you.
Most people don’t eat anywhere near enough fiber which can help promote weight loss, lower blood sugar levels and fight constipation.
Here are foods, easily found in your local grocer to include in your lunch box to ensure your gut health and brain are happy.
- Fiber or prebiotics – the guts favorite food! Think whole grains, beans and legumes, whole fruits and veggies
- Fruits: Bananas, apples, mangos, pears & blackberries
- Greens: Broccoli, asparagus, seaweed, avocado and split peas
- Garlic and Bone Broth such as the hugely popular Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth. Both of these are found on Amazon and have raving reviews worth checking out.
- Roughage: Jerusalem artichoke (Mexican turnip), flaxseed and jicama (washed, peeled and cut into matchsticks make a perfect dipping alternative to carrots and celery)
- Fermented foods: Kombucha, Sauerkrat, kimchi, tempeh (soy-based product looking a little like cake), miso (Japanese seasoning), kefir (fermented milk) and pickles.
Note: If you have no idea WHEN to eat on a night shift, it’s important that you know and educate yourself. This post will help you out with all the nitty-gritty details – When Should I Eat on Night Shift?
A Quick Note About Capsule Probiotics:
If you’re considering taking probiotics to improve your gut health, seek guidance from your general practitioner first.
Some are broken down by the acidic environment in your stomach before reaching your gut and it’s best to seek advice about which product is right for you to get results.
There may also be some negative effects depending on your medical past history so it’s best to seek guidance first.
10. Write It Down
You may feel that keeping a diary or writing down your thoughts in a journal is only for long-distance relationships or the awkward recluse.
But expressive journaling or bullet point journaling has been extensively shown to boost memory, comprehension and is an excellent form of mindfulness – it’s a buzz word for good reason.
Practicing mindfulness improves our ability to cope with stress, fight disease and help tolerate changes in our environment – like night shift! It even aids in improving the negative effects of depression.
I know some of you dread the thought of journaling and think it’s a waste of time, adding little value. But I challenge you to reconsider. Jotting down a few points takes less time than brewing your morning coffee!
- Spend the first 5 minutes of each day writing down something you love about your life and are thankful for. You could also do this just before you get into bed, after your night shift.
- Secondly, (this is one of my favorite tips) keep the same note pad by your bed and write down your worries, thoughts, concerns and to-do-list if you can’t sleep. These things are causing you stress, keeping you from falling asleep. It really works a treat!
- Lastly, upon getting home from a traumatic, emotional shift write down how you feel about it. You don’t need to show it to anyone, but this practice has shown to improve both your physical and psychological health allowing you to become more resilient.
Related post: Night Shift and Depression. Are They Linked?
Summary: How To Work The Night Shift and Stay Healthy
It seems it is possible to work night shift and stay healthy; we just need to know where to look for a little self-love.
Spending only 5 extra minutes a day focusing on you can be the difference between loving your job and feeling like it’s a chore. These precious few minutes can help you sleep, stop you getting sick and put you miles ahead of your co-workers.
If you enjoyed this article on how to work night shift and stay healthy and have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section below!
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