Sleep hacks for shift workers

“Shift workers have been found to be at increased risks of insomnia, chronic fatigue, anxiety and depression, adverse cardiovascular and gastrointestinal effects, as well as some aspects of impaired reproduction in women. [1,2] Most relevant to the present review, the results of several well-controlled (for potential confounders) epidemiological studies suggest that exposure to shift work is an independent predictor of increased body mass[3] body mass index [4,5] prevalence of obesity [68] and waist-to-hip ratio [9].”

I apologise, the quotation above from “Exercise, energy balance and the shift worker” (Atkinson, 2008) is probably not a very nice way to start, however it does drive home the message that we do need to be conscious of the effects which your profession may have on your health.

The good news is, that I can provide you with some well-researched, effective methods to change your situation for the better! Let’s first look into why these poor health effects occur and then start taking some practical steps to change the health outcomes and provide a better result for you and your health!

What is Shift work disorder?

SWD is the “Persistent recurrent pattern of sleep disturbance due to alterations of the circadian timekeeping system, and a misalignment between the endogenous circadian rhythm and the exogenous factors that affect the timing or the duration of sleep.”

So in other words, our internal clock is fighting to keep our sleep regular, while our work schedules and external environment fights against this internal clock leading to insomnia, drowsiness, fatigue and a general impairment to your energy and cognitive function.

So whilst we cannot attenuate every factor, we can take a few steps to assist ourselves to sleep better and enhance our rest, this involves;

1. Optimising your diet
2. Changing your environment
3. Adapting your internal clock

All of this combined, can have you not only sleeping better but functioning at your role more effectively, and minimizing the impact of your shift work on your health as much as possible.

Optimising your diet

A chronic lack of sleep impairs our ability to tolerate carbohydrates at the same time as increasing our appetite for them! So essentially, your carb intake needs to be kept low to moderate, despite how appealing they may become when you are tired.

Eat low GI carbohydrates during the daylight hours only and in the last meal prior to bed to enhance sleep.

The more sleep deprived you are, the hungrier you will be. This is due to an increase of the hormone ghrelin which is secreted in the gut, which tells the brain to send more hunger signals. Particularly in overweight people, ghrelin can be working overtime while leptin (the hormone which signals fullness) can become impaired, leading us to overeat and to fail to feel as full as we should after a meal.

Base your diet around high fibre, high protein foods.

Proteins are found in animal products such as meat, cheese and other dairy, as well as eggs and non-animal sources like legumes, tofu and beans. Add as many fresh vegetables as you can to your diet and choose high nutrient, unrefined fats such as avocado, nuts and seeds.

We also need to curtail our intake of meals during non-daylight hours, as research has found an association between night shift work and a higher level of triglycerides, cortisol (stress hormone) and cholesterol in addition to a reduction in our ability to metabolise sugars.

Avoid eating sugar and your largest meals during the night time hours.

Change your environment

There are some very easy, tangible things you can do to enhance your sleeping patterns by reducing the impact of daylight on your natural circadian rhythms.

The first thing to do is to avoid very bright light in the evening if you are working an early 5am shift. Two to four hours before your regular bedtime, try to avoid very bright light and artificial light emissions from your phone, television and indoor lighting. Something as simple as wearing sunglasses during your commute home from work will not just make you look cool, but help you to sleep better by minimizing the amount of light exposure prior to your sleep time.

Avoid both artificial and natural light for 2-4 hours prior to your sleep time.

If you are working a very late shift, get as much light as possible during your “day” and as little as possible during the night. This may mean increasing the light you are exposed to while you’re awake, and then keeping the house as dark as possible during your “night” hours. If your house or your surrounds tends to be noisy, turn on a fan to provide some “white noise” and of course, ask your family to be cognizant of your needs.

Keep your bedroom, bathroom and any other room you would use during your scheduled “night” time as dark and quiet as possible.

Adapting your internal clock

We can further enhance the changes we make to our nutrition and our environment to ensure a better sleeping pattern and to optimize our health. The most important thing we can do is to try to create a regular sleep/waking cycle during the week of our shift, and then supplement with some other tools.

The first step is to go to bed and get up at the same time every day.

I don’t mean that you should have the same sleep/wake cycle as you do going from morning to afternoon or late shift (however keeping your meal times the same or as close as possible is highly recommended) but I do mean that we need to keep the same inter-shift patterns during the week you are rostered. So if you’re starting at 5am this week, go to bed and get up at the same time each day during that shift, especially on weekends.

Avoid excessive caffeine intake

Who doesn’t love coffee? It can be helpful for enhancing acute energy levels however both melatonin and caffeine will compete for metabolism, cancelling each other out. It can also prevent adaptation to your new sleep/wake cycle if you are using it to excess when changing from one shift to another.

Then use melatonin and exercise to help you to fall into a regular sleep/wake pattern, and adjust based on your shifts.

Melatonin supplementation and exercise can help you to shift your natural sleep and wake times, either bringing them forward, or moving them back. An effective dose of melatonin is 3mg, however some people find that this is far too much. Start taking 1.5mg and adjust upwards as necessary.

Melatonin is a neural hormone which helps us to fall asleep faster, and light will suppress melatonin production. When we supplement with melatonin in the early evening (as you would for a 5am start), it will help you to fall asleep and then to wake up earlier. If you were to take melatonin in the morning or when you wake (as you would for a 3pm afternoon shift), it can help you stay up later and fall asleep later. Thus, when you change from a morning to an afternoon shift, we can strategically manipulate your timing and intake of melatonin to ease you into a better sleeping pattern and get an extra hour or two of rest which we may not have had otherwise.

Please note that although melatonin is a safe, effective supplement for enhancing sleep – if you are using anti-depressants or ADHD medication, you must see your doctor prior to taking melatonin or any other neutrally active supplement.

Staying active will further increase your energy levels and promote deeper sleep.

Exercise acts in exactly the same way to melatonin, exercising after work when doing an early morning shift would assist you to sleep earlier and wake earlier, whereas exercise late at night will have the opposite effect – enabling you to fall asleep later the following day. Exercise and melatonin work synergistically together as they both enhance cognitive function and enhance memory, therefore boosting your productivity and performance at work whilst also helping you to sleep!

Bringing it all together

Here’s a sample schedule for how to best approach and change in shifts from 5am to 3pm;

During 5am shift:
Exercise after work (around 1.30-2pm)
Melatonin supplementation taken with a low GI carb based meal around 6-8pm
Caffeine consumption prior to 12pm only

During 3pm shift:
Exercise after work (around 12pm)
Melatonin supplementation upon waking (around 10am)
Caffeine consumption kept prior to 2pm only.
Last meal of the day taken with a small amount of low GI carbohydrates during break time.

Moving from 5am to 3pm
As soon as your last 5am shift has ended, exercise 1-2 hours prior to leaving for work and supplement with melatonin in the hour prior to your shift and then follow the timing patterns above.

Moving from 3pm to 5am
On the day you have your last 3pm shift, go to sleep as soon as possible after work and schedule some light, well-lit exercise for 1.30-2pm such as a walk in the sun. Take melatonin 1 hour prior to your bedtime.

The style of exercise you choose is important – as very high intensity training styles may not have a particularly calming or rest-inducing effect! Choose to perform light activities daily such as walking, yoga, light stretching or cycling during daylight hours wherever possible, and to aid insulin sensitivity and hormonal balance – complete 2-3 sessions of weight bearing activity for 30-45 minutes.

Need help nailing your diet and exercise?

If you want a tailored training and nutrition plan that helps you get better results for your health, body composition and general well-being, hit me up!

I have been working with clients of all backgrounds, helping them to change their lifestyles, lose bodyfat, gain muscle and feel healthier and fitter for ten years.
Check out my reviews from happy clients on FB, and drop me a message to inquire about reaching a new level in your training.

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