According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 15 million Americans spend at least part of their time working on a night shift. Many of those Americans work in health care.
Working late night and morning hours has been associated with insomnia, increased problems with cognition and weight gain, making it challenging for night-shift workers to maintain good health. Experts advise that it is especially important for these individuals to pay attention to proper nutrition and exercise and establish a daily schedule if possible.
Here are three tips for staying healthy while working the night shift from Richard Loving, RN, PhD, a senior nursing specialist, and Jennifer Powers, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.
Maintain the same sleep schedule.
“Some individuals prefer to sleep immediately after their shift, while others try to maintain a pattern similar to one they would have for a day shift schedule, sleeping before going to work,” says Loving. “Whatever the pattern is, the best adaptation will occur if a person can maintain it even on days when they’re not working.”
He suggests getting a consolidated sleep period of six and a half to seven and a half hours each day, avoiding sleep aid medications if possible.
Control exposure to bright light.
People who work the night shift can disrupt their individual circadian rhythms due to altered exposure to bright light. Circadian rhythms control things like sleep-wake patterns, hormone cycles and digestion-elimination patterns.
To aid in establishing a regular pattern, Loving suggests getting 30 minutes of bright-light exposure during the time one would consider their “morning.” For example, for someone who goes to work at midnight, bright light exposure between 9 and 11 pm may be helpful. It is important to restrict exposure at other times of the day to avoid resetting the circadian rhythm to a non-optimal time.
Focus on healthy food and activity.
Because food options can be limited during late-night hours, planning and prepping well-balanced meals ahead of time is important.
“People who work the night shift should generally try to eat every three to five hours to maintain a consistent energy level,” says Powers. She also says to avoid meals within an hour or two of bedtime to prevent digestive issues and to improve sleep.
To help with focus, energy and alertness for an evening shift, try to fit in 30 minutes of exercise before heading to work. Caffeine can also be used to assist with alertness but should not be consumed less than 8 to12 hours before bedtime.
Finally, it’s important to find time for yourself, and make time to be around friends and loved ones to avoid feelings of alienation.
“The goal is to carve out time for every area of health,” says Loving.
For the news media: To talk with Richard Loving, RN, PhD, about working the night shift for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.