Lets have a moment of appreciation for the heroes out there working the night shift. If you do nothing more today be grateful for those working in our vital and emergency services, the factory late shift, those sorting your mail and driving deliveries through the night so your normal day can run smoothly. Because of need and demand many work through the night or at hours which we regard as odd.
Anyone working outside of 6am to 6pm will have noticed ill effects of working against the bodies natural clock and in many jobs its not an active choice. Hospitals don’t close at 6pm and babies don’t just arrive during normal working hours. There are many working late and working through the night in service to support us and the demands we have of modern life.
You wont be surprised to hear, especially if you are one of them, the ill effects this can have impacting more than just your ability to sleep and feel rested. Shift workers are more likely to have long standing health issues, more likely to report ill health and sadly are more likely than non-shift workers to be obese. Persistent lack of quality sleep has been linked to chronic conditions such as obesity, depression, diabetes and heart disease .
Working nights can also cause a storm of other issues related to diet and nutrition, not least messing with appetite, digestion and ultimately impacting your weight and well-being. No one wants their job to make them unwell and shift worker or not people want to have control of their diet and nutrition to maintain a healthy weight and body composition.
So what can you do?
Before the shift
Eat well before the start of your shift – Sounds obvious but if you have a physical job or one where you’ll be on your feet most of the night you should shoot for the best start possible. A reasonably sized meal containing some protein, veggies, some carbs to preference is a pretty decent meal. Could be something like chicken, veg and rice, as a really simple example. The goal is to feel satisfied by the meal but not overly full. You would do well to avoid hard to digest meals, those high fat and spicy foods for this meal.
During the shift
Stay hydrated – This isn’t just because its obviously a good thing for general health. The reason for night workers to stay as well hydrated as possible is in order to remain alert mentally. Dehydration can reduce mental and physical performance, which can obviously impact your work output but could also start to erode your reasoning around food and snack choices as the night wears on.
Eat small meals – Two key reasons for this recommendation are to ensure your meals don’t induce drowsiness but also to control your intake. If you are rushed during the shift you can feel under pressure to wolf something down, better thats a small meal than a bunch of shitty snacks.
Again base these mini meals around lean proteins, veggies and fruits. Add carbs and fats to preference but go easy on the quantities. A chicken salad, a fruit salad, hummus with vegetable crudites or a wrap are all great examples.
Lets avoid this!
Use caffeine sparingly – Nothing wrong with a coffee or a strong cup of tea but try not to rely on it to keep you awake for every shift. Sure every now and then we can use these stimulants to pick us up and grind through a tough night but doing so every shift is not ideal.
Eat for a reason – One of the biggest problems with working nights is that your resistance and will power can be eroded by your bodies natural defense mechanism. It doesn’t want to be awake at night and it regards this as a stress. But you are just getting through a shift not having to flee from danger in the middle of the night.
Avoid eating from boredom or during your breaks to kill time. If you have had a decent meal before and have small meals planned during you typically want to avoid snacking. If you feel compelled to do so can you do something else? Talk with colleagues, a quick walk or perhaps other tasks.
Avoid snacking for pick me ups – Don’t turn to snacks to get a burst of energy because often this is followed by a dip in energy or how you feel afterwards. So just like caffeine you get a good bust of energy or alertness but you will suffer later. When that happens you either choose to continue the cycle or feel rubbish. So lets fuel for the shift, not the next 20 minutes.
Be prepared – Meal prepping is a great tactic in general to stick to a diet and get the right nutrients to fuel yourself. It can be even more helpful when your will power is going to be compromised or you will be susceptible to increased cravings for high fat and sugar foods.
Have those small meals ready or know when you are getting them from. When you have food in your bag its no guarantee you wont cave into the doughnuts that Betty brought in as a ‘treat’, but being prepared puts you into a better position tell her to stick those sugar bombs where the sun doesn’t shine.
After the shift
You are done and can think of nothing more than falling head first into your bed after downing a packet of M&M’s and a bottle of Coke. Lets not do that.
We appreciated you heroes at the beginning of the article, now its time to appreciate your efforts and be kind to yourself, let your body recover and don’t put it under even more stress. You should be focused on recovery.
A light meal – Depending on your hunger levels and the calories consumed during the night you might benefit from a light meal before getting some rest. What you have at this point is largely going to be down to what you can tolerate making and again meal prep could save you here, having something in the fridge ready to go.
I say ‘light’ because you don’t want to feel full and heavy going to bed. And you might also conclude that you ate enough during the night with your pre-shift meal and light meals, that you don’t need anything. Simple guideline, don’t smash a load of calories from nutrient poor food and don’t over eat, if you aren’t hungry don’t eat.
Sleep – Yeah good one Ash. But I have been there and I know the temptation to “push on through the day”, “get some life admin done” and its “day time anyway”. This isn’t wise, you need to be thinking and playing the long game. Aim to sleep if you can! How you manage this is largely dependent on when your next night shift is and how stimulated you are.
I could probably write a whole article on this alone but we are focusing on nutrition. I mention sleep because unless you actually get some you could be sabotaging all the good work you did controlling your diet.
Don’t sedate – Limit the use of sedatives post shift, such as alcohol or sleeping pills. It can be super tempting to do this in the hope that sleep comes quicker and easier. Problem is that although alcohol can promote the onset of sleep it is also associated with disrupted sleep, poor sleep quality and early waking.
Exercise – Getting some exercise post shift, moving around a little (not intense sessions) can be used to promote more restful sleep and de-stress from the night. Also being fitter in general might help you with your work, feeling less fatigued and less physically at your limit during the night.
Thats a lot of stuff!
Yes it is. There is a lot to think about there and honestly don’t try and do that all at once, it will be carnage, very few people (read NONE) can implement all those changes at once. But lucky for you I deliberately put them into the order above.
Its a timeline around the key phases of course but within each I’ve prioritised. If your night time nutrition is a complete mess and you regularly chomp down a Mars bar, chug countless coffees and then struggle to sleep once you’re done, just start at the beginning.
Get a good feed before the shift as advised above and think about staying hydrated during. This sets you up to snack less, need stimulants less and eventually get to bed and rest.
Once you get those habits working for you (think weeks not days), then start to add another habit in and build from there. Ultimately you need to get to a point where you are managing your diet and health to the point that you are best protected from the effects of the night shift. Its not easy and I don’t envy you but I hope this helps.
[I was previously a night shift worker in IT, working over night on call and evening implementation shifts. I suffered many night shifts sitting on my backside, often alone, drinking Redbull and snacking on biscuits. Thankfully this is a thing of the past for me, but had I followed the advice above I would have been in better health, suffered less problems related to stress and fatigue from pushing through the night]
Nerd note – Wont the body adjust? The body can adjust but typically shift works are not maintaining the same schedule and instead constantly switch between night and day patterns. This disrupts the production of a hormone called Melatonin responsible for promoting sleep, increasing when its dark and decreasing as it becomes light (you may have heard of it because many sleep related drugs are based around it)