Shift work and weight loss

Working nights doesn't have to derail your health and wellness goals. Here's how to fit healthy habits into your lifestyle.
Published 9 July 2017

How to balance shift work and healthy habits

Security guards, policemen, ER doctors, and nurses — all of them risk their health for their jobs. They're among the 16 per cent of Australians who work alternative and rotating shifts, including the night shift, which falls between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Those who work this schedule log an average of 42 fewer minutes of shuteye per night than daytime workers, according to a 2005 study at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

For years, researchers have been linking long-term insufficient sleep to a host of chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and sleep apnea, not to mention poor concentration, absenteeism, accidents, errors, injuries and fatalities that lack of sleep can cause in the workplace. More recently, studies have associated less sleep with obesity.

Even after living for years on a nocturnal schedule, the human body never truly adapts to it, says Greg Belenky, MD, director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University in the USA. "The body's circadian rhythm that controls our cycles of sleep is set by exposure to daylight. It's next to impossible to reset this rhythm," he explains.

This rhythm regulates our temperature, lowering it at night when it's time to sleep, and raising it during the day to keep us alert. So, even if you are tired from a night on the job and go to bed at 8 am, your body fights to keep you awake. A victim of "shift-lag," the average night shift worker will wake often up around 1 pm, after only 5 hours of sleep, much less than the 7 to 9 hours of sleep recommended by experts, says Belenky.

1. Aim for adequate sleep

The first step in making a night-owl schedule a healthier one is to aim for adequate sleep. If you do happen to awake before reaching a solid 8 hours of sleep, fit in some naps throughout the day. "It's the total sleep time in 24 hours that counts more than sleeping for longer stretches," says Belenky. The body takes a mini temperature dip around 4 pm — the perfect time for a siesta.

Try some of these daytime sleeping tips from the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Disconnect yourself from your digital life. No mobile phones, tablets, remote controls, answering machines (unless you're on call).
  • Go directly to sleep after work. Resist turning on the TV, reading a thriller or anything else that might start your mind racing.
  • Trick your internal clock by blocking out excess light and sound with eye masks, earplugs, white noise machines and "blackout" curtains.
  • Wear dark glasses on your way home from work to keep the daylight from triggering your internal "daytime" clock.
  • To push your body temperature in the sleeping zone, keep the bedroom cool, around 15-20 degrees. Experiment until you get the optimal temperature for your body.
  • Sleep medication isn't recommended without a consultation with your doctor, and they should only be used as a short-term fix.

2. Be aware of your food and drink choices

Shift workers often eat due to boredom or tiredness these habits can derail your health and wellness goals. And, again, nature is working against you: "When you're sleep deprived, you're more likely to want food higher in fat and kilojoules," says Belenky. He also says that when you are lacking sleep, your body ends up with a surplus of glucose, which may contribute to weight gain.

Being aware of these factors is the first step in sticking to healthy habits. While there are no specific foods proven to help you relax, the best foods for shift workers are the nutritious, balanced choices that are best for everybody. The National Sleep Foundation recommends not going to bed too full or too hungry - either feeling could keep you awake.

If you drink caffeine, do so as early as possible in your shift. Why? The same amount of caffeine taken too close to bedtime was found in a study at the Université of Montréal to be even more disruptive to daytime sleepers than to nighttime sleepers. Many shift workers unwind with a glass of wine or beer after work to help them slide into slumber. While it may seem to help, it actually causes you to sleep less soundly. Instead, try aromatherapy, suggests Alan R. Hirsch, MD, FACP, founder and neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. His studies have found scents like lavender, vanilla, green apple, and cucumber promote relaxation. You can get the soothing effect with essential oils—synthetic scents work just as well as natural ones.

3. Add activity to your day

As a coping strategy for night shifts, some researchers suggest that aerobic exercise soon after you awaken will raise your body temperature, improve your mood and make you feel more alert for the rest of the day. Others suggest that aerobic exercise one or two hours before commencing your shift will keep you more alert whilst on duty.

If your job allows it, try to fit in activity while at work to keep yourself alert, even if it's only a quick walk. Like sleep, all movement adds up throughout the day. The best thing to do is experiment—and find what you enjoy.