This Sunday morning ended my year and a half of being on and off night shift. I can’t say I’m sad to see it go, but I am incredibly thankful for the things it allowed me to learn. Until the night shift, I would consistently go to bed at one time and wake up at pretty much the exact same time every day. Before I worked night shift I had only slept past 1030 AM a very few times in my life. Until I worked night shift I did not realize how incredibly hard it is to stay healthy on a night shift schedule.
As a nurse, I learned so much in my career by being on night shift. It allowed me to work more autonomously. I definitely learned the wonderfulness of Ambien. I transferred far too many patients to the ICU, but not a single one of them coded in my care for which I am thankful. And I got to know some really incredible people and learn how to be a nurse without all the people around.
As a nutritionist I learned that working the night shift means that those regular meals are not going to happen. That when you stay up all night and are stressed, as nursing as a career makes you stressed, you crave those high fat foods.
As a personal trainer I learned just how hard it is to get in a regular work out routine when you walk an average of 6 miles a night at work and you are never actually awake consistently at the same time every day of the week, let alone have the consistency to work out.
As a person, I learned that my body much prefers a day schedule and I’m not the nicest person on night shift. I learned that there were times I could sleep for almost 24 hours. And I was definitely able to sleep past 10:30 AM.
As a person who constantly likes to learn, I cringed every time I saw another article pop up in an e-mail about the long term health effects of shift work. But shift work, especially in nursing, will always exist. There will ALWAYS be sick people, and just because it is healthier for people to sleep at night, it doesn’t mean diseases, especially cancer, will stop causing people to be sick at night. So since we don’t live in a magical world where suddenly at night everyone is not healthy, we must learn to be the healthiest possible with the schedule we are given.
My advice for evening/night shifters:
1. Don’t fight sleep: your body needs sleep to repair. Staying up for 24 hours multiple times reduces your ability to think clearly. Especially for people in shift positions, this can be very dangerous. If you need to revert back to a day schedule, make sure to sleep a couple of hours after getting off of work.
2. Blackout curtains: seriously, especially during the summer, they really help. It also helps your body to release the proper hormones, like melatonin.
3. Silence your phone: I have a rule that unless there is something I HAVE to hear my phone for, it is on silent while I’m asleep during the day. My schedule changes every week, so it was hard for my family and friends to keep track of the days I would be sleeping during the day. Your sleep is more important than that text, I promise.
4. Keep the caffeine to a minimum: Caffeine is a drug, a legal one, but still a drug. In excess doses caffeine can be really dangerous. Don’t keep increasing the amount and set a time to stop drinking caffeine so it doesn’t interfere with your sleep. On your days off try and stay away from the caffeine so your tolerance doesn’t increase and your rest isn’t interrupted.
5. Have a social life: Make sure that though you’re working a funky schedule you plan ahead to have a social life. If you’re working shift work, chances are you have to work weekends. Work with those important to you to have time to relax and hang out and feel like more of a “normal” person.
6. Exercise: Try to exercise at least 3 times a week. This could be just taking a walk or doing a 20 minute video. Exercise will help your body to feel healthier and actually be healthier. It will also help reduce those stress hormones that shift work increases.
7. Eating schedule: Try and keep your eating schedule as regular as possible. Try consistently eating when you get up and then every 4-5 hours from there. There is no research I have behind this, but it seemed to help me. When I waited to eat until the same hours each day, I would often be up for far too long without eating food. Eat when you’re hungry. Your body will tell you. And eat real meals.
8. Stay away from the junk: You can’t always stay away from it, but as much as possible focus on healthy eating. Late nights often make your body crave the worst foods. Make it an effort to pack healthy and know where at work you can buy the healthy food.
9. Take care of yourself: Keep up with your hair, your laundry, get a massage or mani/pedi, plan fun events you like to do. Often with shift work, because it runs your schedule so much you forget to take care of yourself. Your job is only part of your life, remember to enjoy the other parts :-).
10. Water and Nutrients: Water, your body needs it. Make sure you drink enough. Make sure your body has enough of it. Monitor your nutrition and if you think you aren’t getting enough, talk to a healthcare professional who can advise you on supplements.
Chances are on the night shift you are not going to be the healthiest you will ever be in your life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t live at the optimal health for your current life situation. Take care of yourself, your health and happiness are worth it!