How to Handle Shift Work

It's 1:44am and I am on my first overnight shift of 4. Shift work is hard; there is no doubt about it. Some of you may know that I currently balance two jobs, by day I am a naturopath/entrepreneur and some nights/afternoons/days I am a 'social worker'. Shift work is a necessary evil for so many professions (nurses, doctors, firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and even social workers!). I began working shifts about a year ago when I took a job as a caseworker/counsellor at a shelter. As a naturopath, I was well aware of the long-term health consequences shift work has on your physical and mental health but I accepted it for what it is. A year into it and I can honestly say part-time shift work is anything but easy. However, in the past year I have gotten better at adjusting to the circumstances. A year ago, I was struggling with eating crap on overnight shifts, sleeping during the day, and my work/life balance. I still don't sleep the greatest when I get off shift at 8am but I have made some changes that have helped me cope. But before I share how I handle working shifts let’s talk about how shift work affects your health.

The normal circadian rhythm is disturbed in shift workers. The circadian rhythm is our body's internal 'clock'; sunlight activates our circadian rhythm telling our body it is daytime, whereas darkness indicates to our body that it is time to go to sleep. Working shifts, staying up all-night and sleeping all day, completely throws off this rhythm. Studies have demonstrated that melatonin directly correlates with our body's circadian rhythm, in shift workers night-time melatonin levels are altered. Research suggests that altered melatonin levels have long-term consequences including increased risk of developing cancer. Reproductive hormones has also been shown to be altered in shift workers, putting women at risk of developing hormone-related diseases including breast cancer, irregular menstrual cycles, and decreased fertility. Shift work causes an increase in cortisol, our stress hormone, which interferes with glucose metabolism, causes high blood pressure and bone loss, decreases immunity and sex drive, results in cravings for carbs, and leads to fat deposits in the face, neck, and mid-section. In a study published just last week, authors demonstrated that individuals who work shift work have an increase in DNA damage compared to individuals who maintain 'normal' sleep schedules due to less time spent repairing DNA, which occurs while asleep. Night-time shift work has also been shown to interfere with glucose (sugar) metabolism, which in turn directly affects weight management and leads to obesity. Shift workers are also at an increased risk of depression and other mental illnesses, long-term sleep disorders, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular diseases. 

So if you work shift work, how do you deal with it? I have implemented a few things that keep me on track during my overnight shifts. I prepare my body a few days, usually 2-3 days, before starting overnight work by staying up a bit later then I typically would. I bring food with me from home, usually low carb foods such as veggies, fruit, and protein powder with almond milk and drink lots water throughout the night, it helps me stay awake and hydrated. I turn my phone on ‘night shift’ mode; this is a great feature on iPhones, it changes the light so it isn’t as bright. I also turn my computer screen brightness down as low as it can go. I give my body some extra support by supplementing with melatonin and immune boosting vitamins such as vitamin C to avoid getting sick. To help manage increased cortisol levels I supplement with herbs that target stress and promote optimal adrenal function. I try my best to sleep a few hours during the day when I get home and nap at night before starting an overnight shift. In between sleeping, I like to get outside and allow the sunlight to re-set my circadian rhythm. I practice self-care and prioritize my needs during this time, by practicing the art of ‘saying no’; I don’t engage in extra things because my body is already under enough stress. And, I communicate with my partner, who takes on more parental responsibilities during this time. These are the main things that allow me to get through my overnight shifts.

Do you work shift work? What have you done that has helped you to stay healthy? Feel free to share in the comments.

If you are a shift worker and looking for extra support talk to a naturopath about what supplements and nutrition can help support you.

Davis S, Mirick DK.Circadian disruption, shift work and the risk of cancer: a summary of the evidence and studies in Seattle. Cancer Causes Control. 2006 May;17(4):539-45.
Bhatti P, Mirick DK, Randolph TW, Gong J, Buchanan DT, Zhang JJ, Davis S.Oxidative DNA damage during night shift work. Occup Environ Med. 2017 Jun 26. pii: oemed-2017-104414. doi: 10.1136/oemed-2017-104414.
Rabinerson DMarkovitch LGabbay-Ben-Ziv R.[SHIFT WORK AND ITS HEALTH HAZARDS]. Harefuah. 2016 Jul;155(7):394-397.