Night shift workers have become more prevalent in our 24 hour society. With increasing demands to further productivity, night shift work has become commonplace, leading to an increase in research on the health sequelae of shift work. Even the most self-proclaimed night owl is susceptible to the physiological and psychological stress that night shift workers face.
The most obvious concern with shift work is an altered sleep cycle. Working at night forces the body to ignore biochemical signals that induce sleep when the sun goes down. When darkness occurs, the pineal gland, a pea sized gland located in the center of the brain, releases melatonin, a hormone that when released, helps you to relax and encourage sleep. Melatonin is typically released for about 12 hours during the night until daylight signals reduce melatonin levels to almost nothing. This cycling of melatonin is considered a modulator of circadian rhythm, the bodies 24 hour cycle.
This can pose a huge problem for night shift workers wanting to stay awake at night and sleep during the day. One way to improve daytime sleep cycles is to supplement with melatonin during the hours in which you want to sleep, with doses of melatonin depending on the individual. Other ways to naturally raise melatonin is to avoid strenuous exercise and bright light exposure before bed. Melatonin levels have been found to decrease for up to 3 hours post television screening or vigorous exercise. Dark window coverings or eye pillows may be helpful for those needing sleep in the daylight hours.
If daylight exposure is reduced due to night shift working, it places one at a higher risk of several nutritional deficiencies. The most common being vitamin D. Vitamin D plays several health benefitting roles including maintaining bone mineral density, keeping the immune system healthy and improving mood. While New Englanders are notoriously low on vitamin D, total lack of sun exposure further sets the premise for vitamin D deficiency.
While sun bathing may be tempting, avoiding sun exposure between the hours of 10am and 2pm when the rays are most damaging is recommended. To adequately meet your vitamin D needs it is best to have levels tested and supplement accordingly.
Other deficiencies can come from lack of overall nutrition. Hunger signals are also linked to circadian rhythms and sleep wake cycles, thereby decreasing hunger during the night and increasing hunger signals during the daylight hours. Night shift workers notoriously do not eat enough (of the good stuff) and frequently reach for high sugar and high carbohydrate foods to help supply energy.
Caffeine abuse can be rampant in night shift workers, simply for its stimulating effects. Energy drinks and energy products are certainly appealing when you need an oomph to get you through the night, however, these products are linked to an increase in blood pressure, headaches, dehydration, blood sugar irregularities and heart palpitations.
Natural ways combat nutrient deficiencies and caffeine abuse in shift workers include the following:
Eat every 2-3 hours
This does not mean you have to eat a full meal, even something small like a piece of fruit with nut butter, vegetables and hummus dip or small smoothie can do the trick. Eating every 2-3 hours will encourage a balanced blood sugar, thereby supplying consistent energy.
Dark Leafy Greens
Dark greens like kale, spinach and collards are high in iron. Iron supports energy and stamina naturally. Consider having iron levels checked to see if supplementation is warranted. Green smoothies are always a great way to get a variety of nutrients in the diet, particularity iron.
Dehydration is one of the leading causes of fatigue and tiredness. Ensuring you are hydrated will abate sleepiness naturally. Water and herbal teas are fair game, however, caffeinated or sugary beverages do not count toward your total water intake.
B vitamins supply a natural boost of energy as they support your bodies adrenal system, the system that keeps your stress responses in check. Taking B vitamins prior to a shift can increase energy and stamina but should be avoided at the end of the shift as they may keep you from falling asleep.
Often night shift workers report having less personal time and less time to spend with family due to their altered sleeping patterns. Rates of marital stress, family stress and depression are all increased in individuals who work the night shift. Interruptions in sleep during the day can lead to inadequate amounts and quality of sleep, thus further putting one at risk for developing a psychological disorder.
Setting boundaries with family and friends as to when you are not to be interrupted, also avoiding the distractions of phone ringers, televisions and pets can help in keeping to a strict sleep schedule after working a night shift. It is imperative that if sleep is not going to happen at night, there must be time made in the day.
Considering family or individual counseling for tools to help with the stress of maintaining a night shift schedule can also often be helpful.
Night shift workers have been shown to be at an increased risk of several disease processes including hypothyroidism, cancers, mental and emotional disorders, sleep apnea and hypertension to name a few. Routine check ups can help to catch these diseases processes early on and several therapies can be offered to abate their progression.
Although night shift workers are at elevated risk, there are many day shift workers who suffer from similar disease processes due to not maintaining an adequate sleep regimen. This speaks to the overall importance of quality sleep to the preservation of health, making sleep a priority for everyone.