Keeping It Off on the Night Shift

Working nights doesn't have to wreak havoc on weight loss—here's how to fit health into your shift.
Keeping It Off on the Night Shift

Security guards, policemen, E.R. doctor—all of them risk their health for their jobs. They're among the 20 percent of Americans 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 ills, such as cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and sleep apnea, not to mention the 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 Spokane. "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 a.m., your body fights to keep you awake. A victim of "shift-lag," the average night shift worker will wake often up around 1 p.m., after only 5 hours of sleep, much less than the 7 to 9 hours of zzzzs recommended by experts, says Belenky.

A Good Day's Sleep
The first step in making a night-owl schedule a healthy one is to fit in adequate sleep. If you do happen to awake before reaching a solid 7 to 9 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 p.m.—the perfect time for a siesta.

Try some of these daytime sleeping tips from the National Sleep Foundation:
  • Wear wraparound dark glasses on your way home from work to keep the daylight from triggering your internal "daytime" clock.

  • Go directly to sleep after work. Resist turning on the TV, reading a thriller or anything else that might start your mind racing.

  • To push your body temperature in the sleeping zone, keep the bedroom cool, between 65 and 70 degrees. Experiment until you get the optimal temperature for your body.

  • Trick your internal clock by blocking out excess light and sound with eye masks, ear plugs, white noise machines, "blackout" shades and sound-absorbing curtains or carpeting.

  • Disconnect yourself from your digital life. No cell phones, remote controls, answering machines or pagers (unless you're on call).

  • Make your local delivery people aware of your sleep schedule and arrange for a neighbor to accept packages that are delivered before you awake. Ask family members to respect your sleep schedule.

  • Sleep medication isn't recommended without a consultation with your physician, and then should only be used as a short-term fix.

Midnight Feasts
Shift workers often eat due to boredom or tiredness. These habits can wreak havoc with their weight-loss plan because there is less access to nutritious meals at night. And, again, nature is working against you: "When you're sleep deprived, you're more likely to crave food high in fat and calories," says Belenky. He also says that when you are lacking sleep, your body ends up with a surplus of glucose, which contributes 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 healthy, balanced choices that are best for anybody. 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 drink 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, sliced fruit or even an open shampoo bottle—synthetic scents work just as well as natural ones.

Getting Active
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.

Don't, however, sacrifice sleep to fit in exercise, advises Belenky. Why? "Sleep is tied to performance and safety," he says.

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, exercise adds up throughout the day. The best thing to do is experiment—and find what works best for you.

About the Writer
Amy Leibrock is a freelance health and fitness writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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