Working shifts? Tired and irritable? Nutritionist Claire Turnbull and sleep specialist Dr Alex Bartle offer simple ways to help you better cope with working odd hours.
If you work in health care, transport, emergency services, hospitality or manufacturing and you’re a shift worker, you know it can be tough. Working irregular hours can impact on the way you eat, sleep and exercise. The good news is, there are simple and ’do-able’ ways to get your diet and sleep patterns under control.
This way, you can help reduce the risks of developing potential health problems down the track – and you'll feel a whole lot better about yourself.
What happens to your body
Your body has a circadian rhythm. This is a 24-hour cycle that regulates sleeping, waking, digestion, hormones, body temperature, blood pressure and many other functions of the body. When you work shifts, this rhythm is disturbed and you may experience these problems:
If you’re eating at irregular times, it can be difficult to find healthy food options. A fresh salad or healthy dinner can be hard to come by at 11pm or 5am. And, if your shift varies from week to week, you won’t necessarily be hungry at the designated mealtimes. This can often lead to digestive problems such as indigestion and heartburn.
Tiredness and fatigue can lead to safety issues in the workplace and can impact on your home life – it’s very easy to be irritable when you’re tired. Feeling fatigued and eating poorly can lead to you becoming rundown, which can put you at risk of depression, anxiety and low immunity.
It’s also easy to fall into the trap of grabbing high-kilojoule pick-me-ups when you're tired. Sleep disruption and tiredness can impact on the production of the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin. This can affect your appetite and make you feel hungrier.
What’s more, fatigue can reduce your motivation to exercise – a double-whammy for your health and well-being.
You need to sleep!
There are many factors that may affect your sleep apart from your shifts. It can be a matter of timing as well as the type of foods you eat. Going to bed on an empty stomach is not a great idea. Your digestive system slows down when you’re sleeping and it can interfere with the quality of your sleep as well as increase the likelihood of constipation.
Have your normal evening meal a little earlier or, if you do need to eat closer to your bedtime, keeto a light, small meal (for simple ideas, see eating plan below).
How caffeine affects sleep
If you work night shifts and are sleeping in the day, the quality of your sleep is likely to already be compromised. Stimulants, such as caffeine, also have an impact on your sleep.
Caffeine takes a long time to break down and be cleared from your body. The half-life of caffeine is between 3-7 hours, meaning at that point, half of the caffeine from the drink is still in your system.
If you have too much caffeine too close to your sleeping time, even if you do fall asleep, the quality of your sleep will be affected and you’re likely to wake up not feeling properly rested.
Get in early
So, if you choose to have caffeinated drinks, try to have them earlier in your shift. This is likely to have the desired effect of increasing your concentration and alertness, while also allowing the caffeine to start clearing from your system while you work.
Top tips for a good night’s (day’s) rest
Sleep as soon as possible after you have finished your shift.
If you’ve worked a night shift, avoid exposing your eyes to the morning light on the way home. The simplest way to do this is to wear sunglasses. Blocking out the light regulates the hormones serotonin and melatonin which affect your sleep and will improve the quality of your shut-eye when you get home.
Try to have only one block of sleep after working a long shift. If you do need an extra nap later in the day, keep it to about 20 minutes.
Use black-out curtains in the bedroom, wear eye shades and use ear plugs to reduce the likelihood of any disturbance when you’re sleeping.
Turn your mobile phone to silent and take the landline off the hook or direct it to message bank, so your sleep is not interrupted.
Avoid overdoing caffeinated drinks at work.
If you’re resorting to taking sedatives or tablets to assist with sleep, first make changes to your diet (following our eating plan below). If you still have problems, see your GP.
Talk to your family or your housemates about your need for uninterrupted sleep. Advise them of your shifts and when you need to sleep, so they can support you.
After you’ve finished a shift and had a sleep, make sure you spend some time outside and expose both your skin and eyes to the sun.
Your new routine
Whether it’s day or night, your body usually needs three meals, along with one or two snacks, in a 24-hour period.
It’s easiest to think of these as a breakfast-style meal, a light meal similar to lunch, and a main meal, like dinner.
If you’re working night shift, consider having your breakfast when you wake, then have your most substantial meal (main meal) before work. Throughout the night, have a light meal and healthy snacks which won’t overload your digestive system. Then, before you sleep, have a small snack so you don’t wake up midway because you’re hungry.
Make an eating plan
Organising your own food to take to work, as well as to eat at home, will free you from reliance on ’quick fix’ foods, from vending machines or the cafeteria. Many of the foods from these sources can add unwanted kilojoules and can also make you feel sluggish and tired – and that’s the opposite of what you need!
Good options are fibre-rich wholegrain cereal with milk, or grainy toast with a form of energy-sustaining protein.
Porridge with fruit
Wholegrain breakfast cereal with skim milk and low-fat yoghurt
Eggs or beans with wholegrain toast
Fruit and skim milk smoothie
This should be slightly smaller than your main meal but contain a protein like tuna, roast meat or eggs, grainy carbohydrates like bread, pasta or rice and some vegies to sustain energy levels.
Tuna and salad multigrain sandwich
Roasted vegies and chicken wrap
Green salad with four-bean mix and reduced-fat feta
Small serving of leftovers from dinner
This dinner-sized meal needs to include a healthy carbohydrate like pasta, potato or rice, with some lean protein such as chicken, fish, tofu or meat. And fill half of your plate with vegies.
Grilled or baked fish or chicken with sweet potato mash and salad
Beef and vegie stir-fry with basmati rice
Roast beef with roast potatoes and green vegies
One or two small snacks
Keep healthy snacks like these in your locker or on hand.