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How can I stay healthy when I work shifts?

In the UK it is estimated that about 1 in 6 working adults do shift work. Shift work not only includes traditional night shifts, but any work that takes place outside the traditional 9-5pm work day, so early morning cleaners, late night shop workers, taxi drivers, health workers... the list goes on.

When asked, people state a number of reasons for working shift schedules: for some it’s just ‘the nature of the job’, for others it might be the only way to incorporate work around children or family care. Whatever the reason, a global 24 hour culture means shift work is on the rise and unlikely to go away.

What are the problems that can come from shift work?

Research has linked shift work to a number of health problems including weight gain, blood sugar issues (diabetes) and heart disease.

Many of the health problems that we can experience due to shift work come from the effect that being awake at ‘the wrong time of day’ has on our internal circadian rhythm, or body clock. Recent research suggests that this impact is more complex than we first thought.

It seems that we don’t just have one body clock, we actually have one main circadian clock and a number of peripheral clocks – it’s as though each of our organs has its own clock. If the rhythm of all the peripheral clocks is not in time with our main clock, then problems can occur.

And this is not the only issue. Our gut bacteria have a diurnal rhythm that can also be disturbed by shift work patterns, which can cause detrimental effects throughout the body.

What can you do to help?

There is no simple way to solve the problems of shift work as choosing a different work pattern just isn’t possible for most people, but there are some things that you can do, and the best advice is to try the steps below and see what works for you. The key is to try and keep all your body clocks in time with each other. This means trying to stick as closely as possible to a ‘normal routine’.

Eating

Try to eat the same kinds of foods at the same times as you would if you were awake (i.e. breakfast foods in the morning, lunch in the middle of the day and a meal in the evening, but little or no food during the night). Some new research suggests that eating food during the night can have detrimental health effects. This is because our levels of glucose and fats in our blood are higher in the evenings and night time, so eating fatty sugary foods at these times can push those blood levels dangerously high. So it’s advisable to avoid large fatty meals during the night, instead choose light meals earlier in the evening and in the morning, including foods such as vegetables, lean protein (nuts, seeds, small amounts of lean meat or fish or cheese), fruit and salads.

Exercise

Exercise tends to increase alertness, so if you are planning to go for a run, do it before your shift, not when you’re heading home to bed.

Sleep

Sleep is especially important for shift workers. This means ensuring the best possible environment for sleeping. Experts agree that sleeping in dark conditions is important, so black-out blinds or heavy curtains can help, or use an eye mask while you sleep. There is a blue quality to the sunlight early in the morning and a more red quality to it in the evening. The blue light wakes us up, and the orange glow helps to put us to sleep. So if you’re coming home from a night shift in the early hours as the sun is coming up try to block out as much of that sunlight as possible. Special sunglasses that block out blue light can help with this.

Caffeine

Remember it can take a number of hours for the effects of caffeine to wear off. This effect varies from person to person, but the best advice is to avoid drinking caffeinated drinks just before your shift ends.

Working hours

If you have the choice, try to keep to the same shift pattern - if you can choose the same shifts from week to week this can help limit the disruption and detrimental health effects.