The Advanced Guide to Self-Care and Night Shift

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Working the night shift can be hard, and nightshift workers are some of the toughest, most resilient of them all. Long shifts with little sleep before, often equate to unhealthy eating and countless energy drinks meant to keep us feeling awake and alert throughout our shift. What we don’t realize is these are only helping to curb a symptom rather than treat the issue. Self-care needs to start becoming a priority.

Night shift workers can prioritize self-care by being disciplined through changing habits. This includes; increased sun exposure, diet and meal planning, exercise, sleep, when we take vacations and how we catch up with friends.

In this post, you’ll find proven strategies you can implement today to help you feel alive no matter what the time of day is. These steps, if used correctly, will allow you to remain alert and active while not compromising on your health and social life.

Commit to the Night Shift

I wanted to start here because this is really important and often something we forget, I know I certainly need reminding.

When working nights we need to commit to this schedule. Own it and make it yours.

We cannot attend all the social events planned by our friends who work days and we cannot enjoy the sunlight at 12.30 pm because it’s a “nice day”. But what we can do is make this schedule work for us. We can manipulate the night /day to make it our own by planning and being organized in the times you are awake.

As you read this post, stop making excuses as to why you can’t do these things and embrace the schedule along with the complexity that comes with it.

Women working

Stock Up On Healthy Snacks

We all do it. No matter what your job is as a night shift worker, there’s a drawer, locker, or other location which houses your snack stash. Candy, chocolate, and other sugary sweets have become the staple of night shift snacks.

The thought is the sugar will give us a boost of energy we need to get through the night when, in fact, they do just the opposite as the high is quickly followed by a crash.

Instead, replacing these sweets with snacks rich in protein, such as veggies (precut to size), peanut butter crackers, and trail mix, will give your body the energy it needs without the sudden drop associated with sugary foods.

Here are a few healthy night shift snack ideas, and here are some delicious snack ideas for the vegans among us.

If sugar is a must, I like to nibble on some Medjool dates or a homemade protein ball made with pitted dates, cashews, coconut oil, cacao powder and desiccated coconut.

Eating sugar too close to bedtime may give you that “sugar crash” making you feel sleepy, but it’s not doing any favors to your insulin levels or tooth decay.

 “When you eat sugar, your blood sugar levels rise and your pancreas releases insulin, which helps the sugar to be taken back into the cells, giving them fuel to run on,”

says the dietitian Alex Evans

Pack a Healthy Lunch

While the rest of the world’s asleep, nightshift workers keep going. This often means the only places open for a 2AM lunch is a fast-food restaurant. These foods, while often delicious, actually work against you in the long run, causing increased drowsiness and fatigue.

But deep down I think we knew that (as much as we hate to admit it…)

Packing your lunch and meal planning ahead of time allows you to pack nutritious, vitamin-rich meals which will help you stay awake rather than add to the problems. These foods can include chicken and hummus, along with fruits and vegetables.

Here are some clever meal-prepping ideas I still use weekly when preparing for my shifts.

This should also include saving carb-heavy meals for after your shift. Foods heavy on carbs, such as bread and pasta, relax our bodies, making it difficult to think clearly and get anything done when on shift. On the flip side, these foods are excellent for getting your body ready for sleep.

But just go easy on the quantity as you don’t need bloating and nausea in bed. If you’re confused on when to eat on a night shift, check out this post – When Should I Eat on Night Shift?

Eat At The Right Times

While snacking at work is the norm on any shift, eating schedules can be difficult for night workers. When it comes to the larger meals of the day, timing can mean the difference between a good night’s (or day’s) rest and not getting any sleep at all.

You want to avoid eating 1-2 hours before your scheduled time to sleep. However, it’s also important not to go to bed hungry, as that will only make for a restless shuteye period. The best time to eat your larger meal of the day is before your shift, while limiting your food consumption between midnight and 6am.

Simply, eat while the sun is up and avoid eating when it’s dark. The video below goes into a lot more detail on why this is important.

If you’re interested to learn about how other popular diets work when on a night shift schedule, click on the links of interest below;

Increase Vitamin D and Sun Exposure

There’s one part of night shift which is often overlooked as part of what puts nightshift workers at risk: the night component.

Our bodies are designed to run on vitamin D, helping both our bone growth and keeping our immune system in check. (source) Normally, our bodies would develop this necessary vitamin through being exposed to the sun. This is a near impossibility when working during the nighttime hours. The cure, then, would be to increase your vitamin d intake.

There’s a couple of different options available. If able, you can adjust your daytime schedule to allow for a few hours outdoors during the daytime each week. This could simply be staying outdoors more on your days off or enjoying a walk in the park or dinner outside between night shifts.

If that’s not a possibility, taking a vitamin D supplement could be beneficial. As always, you should consult a medical professional before taking such a supplement.

This area of our shift work health is hugely important to us as we notice a significant difference when cooped up inside for days, both physically and mentally. Check out this post we wrote titled; How to Get Enough Vitamin D When Working Night Shift for some practical ways in how you can get the required amount of rays.

We also answer a subscriber question here, Can A Person Live Without Sunlight? A Night Owls Must Read? Which is an interesting read.

Stay Hydrated

This doesn’t mean drink as many energy drinks as possible during your shift either if that’s where your brain went.

Your brain and body don’t need that much caffeine in one hit, even if you feel completely washed out and exhausted before a shift. Plus, the sugar in these drinks leads to a spike in your blood sugar followed by the inevitable crash, leaving you more tired than when you began. There is a better way.

Caffeine in moderation, alternative healthy drinking and lots of water.

If your body has the appropriate amount of water, it helps to regulate temperature, keeping your body working properly, and delivering the needed nutrients for your cells. This, in turn, leads to increased, sustainable energy. It’s recommended we get at least 11-16 cups of water each day. (source)

How are you going with drinking this amount?

This can be hard to do for many night shift workers, especially on a consistent basis and when our body craves caffeine. However, if you discipline yourself, your body will soon begin to crave water instead of the other harmful beverages.

But if you don’t love water and find it boring, here are some energizing beverages worth exploring during your next graveyard shift.

Let me just be clear on one thing. Caffeine is not the enemy here. I am a huge tea drinker (lover of Pique Tea) but it’s the volume that’s often hurting us. Take a squiz at this post – Night Shift and Caffeine. How To Use It Wisely to suss how much caffeine is in the drinks popular amongst our community of shift workers.

Another way I say hydrated is by drinking SuperGreen TONIK. It’s a green juice powder I add to a glass of water daily to help “fill in the gaps” in my diet. While it’s no pina colada, it doesn’t taste like grass either. Read our review here or watch it below instead.

Organize Social Events in Advance

Humans are social creatures who crave being around other people. Working the night shift often segregates us from our people, as their lives continue on as we stick the nose to the plow.

Working night shift doesn’t mean you have to give up your social life, though; it just requires some creativity and planning to make it happen.

Make it a point to plan your social events in advance and stick to them. If you work a routine schedule of days off, meaning your days off are the same each week, be sure to communicate those days off with your group of friends and only schedule events on those days as much as possible.

Also, make it a point to gather with your people at least once a week. This will help fight the dreaded feeling of isolation from reality, extremely common among night shift workers. This can be in person or even virtually.

Another thing to consider here is your roster. Are you proactive in manipulating your roster if you have the ability to? This post gives you a bunch of suggestions to consider in regards to scheduling your work so you have more time for play.

Here are a few most scheduling/roster posts you might find helpful;

Find a Hobby

This seems like a cliché, but hobbies are great for night shift workers. Many find knitting or doing puzzle books during downtimes helps to move the night along and not make it seem so endless. Yet, this doesn’t only mean select hobbies you can do during downtime at work.

Related; Bored on Night Shift? How to Stay Busy Without the Internet

Many night shift workers have found that a hobby on their off days helps to reduce the stress and fatigue from their job.

This can be as simple as reading a book, going for a jog in your local park and as complex as building customized wood pieces or selling homes. Whatever you decide, find something that not only takes up your downtime but excites you. Who knows? Your hobby could one day grow to something bigger than just a hobby.

For me, I’ve just bought a portable worm farm from Facebook Marketplace but you can also get the one I have from Amazon. I bought 1000 worms, a bag of compost and have blown away my tiny mind with worm life information. It’s really fun and my garden is looking really healthy and vibrant! Great initiative to get rid of household food scraps and do something for the environment.

Once you’ve found your hobby, you’re probably going to want to stick your headphones in your ears or turn up the speaker to create some atmosphere, right? Well, take a listen to the little playlist we have created which is specifically for night shift workers. You’re going to love it.

Book Yourself a Vacation

Two to three nights a week off isn’t enough to allow your body to get back into a regular routine, which many studies have shown helps to bring healing and rest to our bodies. This is why a vacation is so important to night shift workers.

Try to schedule enough time off so that your body can get back into a daytime schedule at some point, even if for just a couple of days.

While some frown at this as it gets your body out of its routine and forces you to “retrain” your body once back to work, getting on a daytime schedule for a few days helps to relieve stress and fatigue and allows you to truly be present during your vacation.

If possible, schedule your return from vacation in a way that allows a day or two for you to transition to your normal sleep routine before returning to work. This will ensure your first shift back isn’t as tough to endure.

For the nurses among us, you can really feel the pinch of isolation when working remotely. Though you’re away from home, it’s certainly not a holiday, so we suggest you spoil yourself and book one! Here is a post all about nursing remotely and how to thrive.

Also, if you find you want to book a vacation and you’ve got work on, this post will help you get out of it! We won’t tell the boss!

Make Your Sleep a Priority

I know what you’re thinking; this is a given, right? Yet so many night shift workers suffer from a chronic loss of sleep and even Shift Work Sleep Disorder.

This can stem anywhere from joining your friends for a daytime meal catch up to eating the wrong things during shift, in turn causing the inability to go to sleep fast enough. Whatever the cause, losing sleep is the cause of safety concerns as well as overall health and fatigue during shift.

For night shift workers, though, it’s not as easy as getting under the covers and closing our eyes. You need to mimic nighttime in your bedroom during the day as much as possible.

Purchase blackout curtains which are designed to not allow any light through. If that’s not a possibility, use comfortable eyeshades, as our eyes can be sensitive to light, even when our eyelids are closed. We love these ones from Manta Sleep.

Using “white noise” devices can help as well. While you’re sleeping, the world is awake around you. Having white noise, either from a fan, air conditioner, or even a phone app can help the body to relax. Also, wearing glasses which block out blue light while driving home can help you fall asleep faster as well.

If you’ve been here before you know we wear the specs from Swanwick Sleep. Check them out here.

Control Your Exposure to Light

Our bodies have what is called a circadian cycle which naturally progresses throughout the day and promotes natural sleep patterns. This includes when our brain produces melatonin, the natural sleeping aid our body gives us to help it drift off to sleep. This chemical is triggered by darkness.

One way to stay alert during a night shift is to expose your body to bright light, even if artificial. This will trick your body into thinking its daytime and promote alertness. Sounds harsh but it works until a certain point.

On the flip side, exposing your body to the sunlight in the morning has the same effect, causing an inability to sleep. Studies have shown wearing sunglasses to limit your exposure to light helps it to drift off to sleep faster once you are in bed.

When you get home from a shift, you probably watch a bit of TV or scroll on your phone. While this is fine, the light from these devices is keeping that melatonin awake. And this is why we wear blue light blocking glasses 2 hours before bed every day/night.

Dan wearing Aviator blue light blocking glasses from Swanwick Sleep – see website here.
Remember to keep your blue light blocking glasses on even when brushing your teeth! See what other Sleep aids are available from Swanwick Sleep – here

If you need a bit more guidance here, this video talks about what you should do when getting home from a shift and what you’re “wind-down” period should ideally look like.

Move Your Body

Many night shift workers burn calories simply by the work we do. This doesn’t, however, remove the need for a consistent workout routine. We need to get our heart pumping a bit.

It’s recommended that night shift workers exercise at least every other day. Alternate between workout types, such as doing cardio one day and weights the next.

The key is to exercise BEFORE your shift rather than after. If exercising after your shift, your body will be amped when you’re trying to sleep, which doesn’t allow you to get into a deep level of sleep. Exercising before your shift, though, will wake you up and get your body moving and prepared for the shift itself. Of course, the time you exercise depends heavily on when you sleep.

If you’re one to sleep as soon as you get home, don’t exercise after your shift. But if you stay up for several hours and then sleep, exercising before your shift might be better. The key is to be sure to get 7-9 hours of sleep each day.

Here is a post that may help you understand the timing of night shift and exercise – Sleep or Workout? What Should I Do After Night Shift?

[VIDEO] – If you need some exercise inspiration when you can’t be stuffed or don’t want to be seen by anybody, this video will help.

Consume Alcohol at Appropriate Times

No, this isn’t referring to drinking and driving or anything like that, though that’s extremely important. Rather, one of the staples of night shift work is having a cold one after a long shift. While this is beneficial to stress relief and coping with some of the situations we see on a nightly basis, it could be having a harmful effect on your routine.

Alcohol does help with relaxing and feeling sleepy. Yet what many don’t realize is the quality of sleep from an alcohol-induced slumber is not good. This leaves you feeling tired and sluggish the next day, which only adds to a harmful routine of unhealthy habits to counteract the slumber.

Here’s some more info on this topic if you need to know more – Is Surviving Night Shift with a Morning Beer a Good Idea?

Set Personal and Work Goals

Night shift work can seem mundane at times, causing your shift to feel like it will never end. Having goals to work towards can help remedy that feeling of going through the motions. These goals can be a mixture of personal and work goals; whatever it takes to give you the feeling of accomplishment as much as possible.

Personal goals can be setting a weight loss or exercise goal to work towards. Another great goal would be saving for the vacation we spoke of earlier; this also gives you an added reason to go to work in the first place. If work goals are the motivation you need, communicate regularly with your supervisor to discuss your goals and promotions you hope to achieve in the near future.

Related post: How Do I Relax Before A Night Shift? Find Your Zen Now

In the end, building a routine is the key to being successful as a night shift worker. This routine consists of many topics we discussed, from eating right to sleeping enough, but everyone, and every job, is different. Find the routine that works for you and stick to it.

New to the night shift? Get with your veteran night shift coworkers and ask them what works for them and then tailor their suggestions to match your needs. Night shift workers don’t have to be the living dead; it is possible to work the night shift and feel alive at the same time.


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Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, but this is at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure and privacy statement for more info.

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