Minimizing Effects of Shift Work

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A special thank you to all the badass shift workers out there. My mother has been an overnight nurse her whole life and it’s definitely a tough gig at times, so y’all hold a special place of respect in my heart!

Shift work could be defined as: “work that takes place on a schedule outside the traditional 9am-5pm day. It can involve evenings, night shifts, early morning shifts, or rotating shifts.”

For example, a nurse may work a 12 hour shift where they start work at 7pm and finish work at 7am. Some jobs may even include 24 – 48 hour shifts.

Shift Work Occupations May Include:

  • Doctors
  • Nurses
  • Police officers
  • First responders
  • Construction workers
  • Pilots
  • Firefighters
  • Military
  • Factory workers
  • Commercial Drivers

and many others.

Those that do shift work may be at an additional risk for Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD).

It occurs as a result of the body’s natural circadian rhythm being in conflict with when we are awake and asleep, and is often characterized by insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness.

Potential Symptoms of Shift Work Disorder:

  • Excessive sleepiness/ drowsiness 
  • Insomnia, inability to fall asleep  inability to stay asleep
  • Lack of energy
  • Irritability, depression, anxiety, mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Gastrointestinal issues (diarrhea, nausea, constipation)

Potential Long-Term Effects of Shift Work May Include:

  • Changes to metabolism
  • Depression, mood disorders
  • Increased risk of accidents or injury
  • Increased risk of breast or ovarian cancer
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular diseases
  • Increased risk of being overweight or obese
  • Impaired insulin sensitivity
  • Impaired immune function
  • Menstrual irregularities, fertility issues
  • Type 2 Diabetes, metabolic syndrome
  • Ulcers

Optimizing Shift Worker Health via Nutrition:

  • Consider eating a little higher fat and lower carb as insulin sensitivity may become slightly impaired. 
  • Watch sugar intake and try to keep as minimal as possible. 
  • Try to keep meals-rounded so they include a protein, carb, fat, & veggie
  • Prioritize ample protein consumption (bodyweight in lbs = grams of protein in a day) is a great start!
  • Prioritize fiber and water intake to help stay regular (25-40g daily).
  • Eat at regular intervals every few hours to keep blood sugar stable.
  • Monitor and minimize caffeine intake to 200 mg or less per day.
  • Minimize processed food consumption.
  • Pack food for the whole shift. Keep plenty of snacks (protein bars, fruit, nuts, etc) and gum to minimize boredom eating or snacking on junk.
  • Small and easy to eat foods and meals may be a good idea, in addition to packing a small cooler or lunchbox.
  • If logging food in a food tracking app, the time you wake up until the time you sleep = food being logged for the day.
  • Consider eating a small meal once done working to help get to sleep.

Optimizing Shift Worker Health via Supplementation:

Proper supplementation can be a game changer since shift work can compromise our immune system, hormones, and adrenals. 

Brands like Thorne Research or Zhou Nutrition are great.

Supplements to Consider:

  • Zinc
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin B complex
  • Vitamin D 
  • Adrenal Support 
  • Thyroid Support
  • Adaptogens like Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Reishi, Eleuthero, Ginseng, Licorice, Maca, and Astragulus

*Please make sure to check with your doctor prior to making changes to your diet or supplement routines.

Optimizing Shift Worker Health via Lifestyle:

  • Prioritize 8 hours of sleep – make this a non-negotiable and plan food and workouts around maximizing it!
  • Get natural sunlight daily regularly.
  • Crush 8-10k steps daily.
  • Watch exercise frequency: 3-4x a week may be plenty!
  • Play with exercise Intensity: Lower intensity modalities like bodybuilding, yoga, etc may be a better fit than high-intensity exercise like CrossFit, Spin, Orange Theory, etc.
  • Hold the same routine regardless of work schedule (for when we wake up, go to bed, and eat every day).
  • Try to schedule shift days so they’re spread apart over the course of the week so sleep can be a priority .
  • Schedule workouts either before our shift or right after the shift is over (so we can shower and go straight to sleep).
  • Meal prep = key to success. Plan ahead! All the foods, all the snacks on hand.

Optimizing Shift Worker Health via Environment:

  • Work with an experienced nutrition coach to help keep you accountable, provide guidance, and be a support system.
  • Speak with your manager or boss about your health and food priorities so you can maximize eating well on the job.
  • Avoid the nurses/doctors lounge (and all the pastries, desserts, and takeout food that are probably in it!).
  • Surround yourself with supportive people. Don’t be afraid to set an example at the hospital of being a total badass who prioritizes their health (:
  • Blue-light blocking glasses would be great to wear while working overnight (we love Felix Grays!)
  • Bring a water bottle to work to stay hydrated.
  • Bring a lunchbox or cooler to work packed with tons of snacks (protein bars, nuts, fruit, breakfast cereal, jerky, avocados, etc).
  • Sleep with an eye mask and ear plugs.
  • Don’t be afraid to cut yourself some slack. Consistency is more important than food perfection and nutrient timing.

Some of the big takeaways here are that disruption to sleep and circadian rhythm may greatly impact metabolism, put us at risk for mood disorders, impair insulin sensitivity and immune function, and also vastly affect our hormone health. In short:

Everything a normal person has to do, a shift worker has to do EVEN BETTER. There just isn’t as much wiggle room on the nutrition, exercise, or lifestyle front as health and body comp can quickly turn into a dumpster fire if we’re not careful.

Sleep should be of utmost priority, as well as supporting our body with high food quality, supplements, and minimizing stress as much as possible. Meal prepping and planning ahead are by far the key to the success here.

Some special considerations need to be taken towards food and lifestyle so we don’t accidentally put ourselves at risk for diabetes and other health concerns (:

References:

Gouin J-P. “Chronic Stress, Immune Dysregulation, and Health.” Am J Lifestyle Med. 2011 Nov 1; 5(6):476-85.

Harrington JM Health effects of shift work and extended hours of work Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2001;58:68-72.

Knutson KL. “Does Inadequate Sleep Play a Role in Vulnerability to Obesity?” Am J Hum Biol. 2012 Jun; 24(3): 361-71.

Leproult R, Van Cauter E. “Effect of 1 Week of Sleep Restriction on Testosterone Levels in Young Healthy Men.” JAMA. 2011 Jun 1; 305(21): 2173-4.

Ohkuma T, Fuji H, Iwase M, Kikuchi Y, Ogata S, Idewaki Y et al. “Impact of Sleep Duration on Obesity and the Glycemic Level in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes: The Fukuoka Diabetes Registry.” Diabetes Care. 2013 Mar; 36(3): 611-7.

Pan A, Schernhammer ES, Sun Q, Hu FB. “Rotating Night Shift Work and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Two Prospective Cohort Studies in Women.” PLoS Med. 2011 Dec; 8(12): e1001141.

“Shift Work and Health: Current Problems and Preventive Actions” Safety and Health at Work vol. 1,2 (2010): 112-23.

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