The Night Shift Worker’s Guide to Getting Better Sleep

Are you or your loved ones working at odd hours? Many careers often have schedules that involve working at night. Having inadequate rest before night shifts can lead to lowered concentration, increasing the risk of accidents happening. 

Besides the dangers of working when your body naturally wants to be sleeping, overnight or swing shift workers are also at an increased risk for metabolic syndrome, chronic diseases, such as obesity and heart disease. Sleeping and eating out of sync with the body’s natural circadian rhythm can cause sleep and hormonal disturbances, not to mention potentially impacting your social wellbeing when you’re missing out on social gatherings or important family events due to work. Overnight or swing shift workers may also find it challenging to fit in physical activity, especially after coming home from an extended shift. 

Shift workers are essential to society and make an important contribution to the community, but because of the higher risk for health issues that come with a disrupted sleep schedule, it’s even more important to make healthy lifestyle choices. Following these tips can go a long way to help get your sleep and health back on track. 

What are some things overnight shift workers can try to do to get better sleep?

DO: Keep a regular sleep schedule, even on your rest days. Having a consistent schedule helps your body adjust to the effects of working nights. It might be tempting to take off-days as an opportunity to catch up on things, but keeping a consistent sleeping pattern will help you to feel more refreshed throughout the week. 

DO: Plan to spend time with your loved ones. Having quality time with loved ones can help to enhance your mental wellbeing, so try to prioritize moments in your day when you can have a meal or take a walk together. If your schedules don’t quite match, plan to connect with them for some time on off-days.

DO: Exercise regularly. Exercising can be difficult for shift workers, but depending on the type of shift work and your sleep patterns, you can tweak your exercise routine to fit your schedule.

If you’re a night-shift worker, it’s generally advisable to engage in exercise that is gentle after your shift. Try fitting in some yoga to help ease your body and mind into a state of relaxation. Keep the high-intensity workouts right after you wake up and have more energy.

However, if you’re a swing-shift worker (afternoon to evening), try to get your workouts in during the morning! It can be high or low intensity: throw in a variety of workouts to make physical activity refreshing before you start your shift.

DO: Choose foods rich in nutrients that can keep you energized and satisfied. When you’re working a shift, it can get tempting to reach for foods and drinks that promise to help you stay awake. When hunger at night meets with a lack of food choice, processed foods such as instant noodles, potato chips, candy, and caffeinated drinks may seem like your only option. 

It’s true that working night shifts can disrupt your appetite-suppressing hormones. It can lower levels of leptin, a hormone that tells your body to stop eating, and increase levels of ghrelin, another hormone that stimulates your appetite. The result? It’s much harder to resist cravings for processed food that is high in sugar or salt. You might end up eating more than your body needs. Together, the cycle of irregular sleep and poor diet can cause poorer health in the long run. 

Your best bet is to plan ahead. Start your day with a healthy pre-shift meal that’s high in fiber and lean protein to help keep you feeling fuller for longer and your sugar cravings at bay. Pack healthy snacks like unsalted nuts, low-sugar Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, and some veggie sticks, which can keep you going until your next meal. 

DO: Avoid drinking too much alcohol or caffeine. Relying on wine to fall asleep or coffee to stay awake? Not such a good idea, according to a study which reported that caffeine decreases sleep efficiency and sleep duration, in addition to slow-wave and REM sleep in sleep-deprived individuals. Have a cup of coffee before you start your shift, but keep in mind that coffee intake nearer to the end of your shift may affect your sleep quality later on.

While alcohol might make you feel sleepy, it also reduces the important parts of your sleep cycle such as REM sleep, which is restorative for brain activity. You can reduce your intake gradually, then observe the changes to your sleep patterns with the Fitbit app, which allows you to see your time spent in deep sleep, REM sleep, and light sleep. You can even compare your sleep patterns with average Fitbit users!

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