Working abnormal shift patterns can disrupt your routine, which can make it difficult to make healthy choices and maintain positive behaviours such as exercise and eating a healthy diet. This is attributed to disruptions in the body’s ‘circadian rhythm’, which is essentially an internal clock regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus is a small part of the brain responsible for regulating the release of hormones which either stimulate us to be more awake or sedate us to feel more sleepy. This is also referred to as the sleep/wake cycle.
External factors also play a role. When it is dark, your body secretes the hormone melatonin to help you feel tired and drift off to sleep. When it is light, your body will have low levels of melatonin, which will help you stay awake. This is why shift working potentially poses a risk for health, as it may disrupt your natural sleep/wake cycle. But not to worry, this doesn’t mean that good health is out of your reach! See below our top tips for ensuring you maintain a healthy lifestyle around your shift patterns.
- Eat three meals a day as you would if you were in a conventional sleeping pattern. If you find that you are hungry for a snack, choose low-carbohydrate options such as nuts, seeds, boiled eggs, or vegetables and hummus.
- Eat according to the time of day: breakfast foods in the morning, and lunch and dinner foods in the afternoon and evening. This may mean you’re effectively eating porridge with berries and seeds for your ‘dinner’ after a night shift, but it will help you maintain a level of normality.
- Eat mindfully and listen to your hunger cues, ensure you are eating enough to avoid feeling hungry in between meals.
- Stay hydrated, aim for 2-3L of water a day.
- Consuming caffeine can help improve your level of alertness during your shift, but we recommend that you avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before your planned bed-time.
- Plan & prepare: It is likely you may feel more tired than the average person, and this may affect how motivated you feel to make meals around your shift work. So do your best to allocate time once a week to plan your meals and batch cook where possible.
- The same guidelines apply as to traditional sleeping patterns; aim to achieve your minimum target of 150 minutes a week through a combination of aerobic and anaerobic training as well as lifestyle activities.
- Avoid exercising within 2 hours of your planned bed-time as this may make it harder to fall asleep.
- Exercising before or during your shift (in your break for example) may provide you with an extra energy ‘boost’ to help you through. Even a brisk 20-minute walk may help to boost your energy levels.
- Light therapy: This uses specially developed light boxes that expose people to artificial light, and is predominantly used to treat people that suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Light therapy has also been shown to help your body establish a better sleep/wake cycle when working abnormal shift patterns (particularly night shift workers). Lightboxes can be purchased online, or some high street stores such as Argos also sell them.
- Socialise: Many shift workers may fall out of step with their friends and relatives due to a difference in working pattern. However, socialising is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps arranging to meet a friend for a decaf coffee after your shift and before their’s starts?
- Sleep: It is essential to still aim for 7-9 hours a night (or day). Do your best to make your room as dark as possible to encourage deep sleep.
- Relax and unwind: Modern life is stressful, try to make time for relaxing activities such as reading, having a long bath, watching a movie with a friend or relative, or meditation.
- Exercise: It can have a profound impact on your mental wellbeing as well as the physical benefits.
Remember that if you feel your shift work is having a negative impact on your health and wellbeing, to reach out to your GP, and even discuss this with your employer.