Some people work the night shift because they prefer it; others simply take whatever shift they can get in order to pay the bills. Waiters and waitresses, security guards, and all-night plumbers as well as police, firefighters, and physicians and other hospital staff are often expected to work the night shift. Regardless of why you work the night shift, it is important that you stay healthy and avoid running yourself ragged. Here’s what you should know—and do—to stay healthy when you work nights. But firstly, why can the night shift be so unhealthy?
There can be physical and mental consequences of working the night shift—and the most serious one is not getting enough quality sleep. Sleep is one of the most vital elements of health, and not getting enough of it can cause serious health problems such as depression, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Working the night shift forces the body to operate against its natural circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock that tells us when we should sleep and when we should wake. Few people acclimate fully to such a drastic change in schedules. Because of this phenomenon, many such people suffer from shift work sleep disorder (SWSD).
SWSD is characterized by insomnia and excessive sleepiness. People with the disorder are more accident prone, irritable, and less able to concentrate—none of which is healthy for the person, their co-workers, or their family (not to mention other drivers on the road).
So how can you stay healthy while working the night shift? Here are a few tips:
- Stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time every morning. Choose a time when you normally feel tired so that you don’t toss and turn. Try not to break this routine on weekends, though it may be tempting to try to stay awake during the day and sleep at night. If you want to change your bedtime, help your body adjust by making the change in small daily increments, such as 15 minutes earlier or later each day. Additionally, wake up at the same time each evening or night—your body will likely get used to it and wake you up at the same time eventually.
- Don’t eat or drink alcohol right before bed. Leave a wide gap between breakfast and bedtime, and even though alcohol may seem like it helps you sleep, it will prevent you from getting quality, healthy sleep and may take a toll on your energy level and overall health.
- Don’t consume caffeine after midnight. Chocolate, tea, coffee, colas, and other caffeine-laden drinks must not be consumed in the wee hours of the morning, even if you feel you need it—it can prevent you from being able to sleep when you get home in the morning. Check the ingredients of anything you ingest to ensure caffeine, ephedra, or other stimulants are absent, and if you must drink soda, go with a caffeine-free variety.
- Ensure that you have a quiet, dark place to sleep—cover the windows with light-blocking curtains and do your best to keep anyone in the home from disturbing you for any non-emergency.
- Try to do something relaxing after your night shift, such as yoga or a stint in the steam room at the gym. It helps to “decompress,” as it were, after a hard graveyard shift and prepare you for a good day’s sleep.