Shift workers and sleep

How to get good rest when you work an irregular schedule
Published July 6, 2021

We hear time and time again how important it is to get good quality sleep, to have a sleep routine and practise sleep hygiene – but if you are a shift worker and don’t work a regular schedule, that’s much easier said than done.

So, what can you do to maximise your sleep time and get the best rest possible?

Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of the bestselling book This is Your Brain on Food has some advice for using what you eat to your advantage.

“Those who work shifts tend to do vital work at the potential detriment of their own physical and mental health,” Naidoo says, explaining that shift workers have to fight the body’s natural tendency to adhere to its circadian rhythm.

“Our circadian rhythm essentially describes physical and mental processes that happen within our bodies to promote sleep in response to the dark, and activity in response to light.”

Nutrition to the rescue

She explains that dietary choices made throughout your “day” (even if your “day” isn’t actually during the daytime), “can help promote both sleep and energy, to support functioning even with a unique schedule.”

Before going to sleep, foods that are naturally rich in melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep, would be great choices, Naidoo says. “These foods include eggs and tart cherry juice (without added sugars). Foods high in magnesium, such as avocados and chickpeas, have also been shown to support healthy levels of the neurotransmitter GABA [gamma-aminobutyric acid], which promotes relaxation and good rest, while omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to aid in sleep and melatonin production to promote better sleep. These can be found in foods like fatty fish (sockeye salmon, anchovies), walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds, and more.”

Naidoo also recommends having a calming cup of chamomile tea prior to sleeping, to take advantage of its sedative effects.

During your active hours, Naidoo says choosing energizing and anti-inflammatory foods can help you fight fatigue and have energy for activity, despite the body’s inclination for rest.

“Colourful, non-starchy vegetables and fruits, especially berries, provide a variety of nutrients, polyphenols and antioxidants, which have been shown to fight inflammation, while healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds aid in balancing blood sugar to provide lasting energy throughout a shift,” she says.

Spices are also a great way to increase your energy levels, Naidoo explains, with capsaicin from chili peppers, specifically, having been shown to be effective in fighting fatigue as it triggers glucose metabolism. Turmeric with a pinch of black pepper is another fatigue-fighter, as it helps by reducing inflammation and increasing storage of glycogen, an important energy source.

“And of course, moderate amounts of caffeine from black coffee or tea enhances energy and focus for those that aren’t sensitive [to it]. Green tea is also rich in antioxidants that help to fight off free radicals in the body. While green tea also contains caffeine, for most people it is just enough caffeine to help with focus while not feeling jittery. It also contains L-theanine, which works in concert with the caffeine to help brain function. So sipping on cups of green tea is a good idea for shift workers.”

Another key thing to consume is plain and simple water. “Hydration when awake is a key factor to maintaining the body’s metabolism,” says Naidoo. “Dehydration is linked with depression and anxiety. It’s important to note that you should be drinking water regularly while awake. If you wait until you’re thirsty, it’s too late. If you feel a dehydration headache, it’s too late.”

Beyond nutrition

Beyond nutrition, Naidoo suggests being mindful of behaviours that can enhance or hinder sleep.

“Finishing meals at least two hours before sleep and avoiding TV screens, other devices or fluorescent lighting for 30 minutes before going to bed can promote better rest for everyone, but especially for those with altered schedules,” she says. “Leaning into breath work, relaxation exercises and mindful practices can also help to ease into better sleep.”

Miscellaneous tips

Every shift worker’s schedule is different, but if you have to get your Zzz’s during the day, blackout curtains may help.

“Blackout curtains are a type of curtain made of thick fabric that doesn’t allow sunlight to pass through,” explains Stephen Light, co-owner and chief marketing officer at Nolah Mattress. They have a darkening effect, creating a bedroom environment that’s similar to nighttime.

“Seeing daylight triggers the body’s natural circadian rhythm, so it makes sleep difficult to achieve once you see sunlight. Blackout curtains help you sleep by tricking the brain that it’s still nighttime so you can sleep like usual.”

Another trick is to set and stick to a sleep routine as best you can. Dr. Holly Schiff, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Jewish Family Services of Greenwich, Conn., explains.

“Those who work the night shift should try to stay on the same sleep schedule every day of the week – meaning that you don’t change your sleep time even on days off,” Schiff explains. “Keeping a regular schedule will help align your body clock with your sleep pattern.”

She explains that having that consistency will increase the quality of your sleep, and sleeping at night on your days off will actually disrupt your body clock and circadian rhythm. “It will also make it harder to sleep during the day when you return to work.”

On the other hand, if your shifts rotate, it’s obviously impossible to keep a regular sleep schedule. But you can set yourself up for better sleep ahead of each schedule rotation.

“So if you are working an evening shift and will be rotating to a night shift, on the last few days of the evening shift, start delaying the time you go to bed and wake up by one to two hours a day. This way, when you begin the night shift, your body will already be ready and acclimated to the new schedule,” Schiff says. “Having a gradual plan gives your body more time to adjust. We want to avoid a harsh disruption of a sudden schedule change; this will allow you to sleep better.”