Written by Evita Basilio BSc Nutrition
Reviewed by Andrea Miller MHSc, RD
1 in 4 Canadians work shifts, which comprises work patterns that do not follow the conventional 8-hour daytime working period, including night shifts, rotating shift work, and/or irregular working hours.
The Circadian Rhythm
Shift work puts your body in conflict with its natural rhythm. During the daytime our biological processes are working at their peak, and in the evening it gradually slows down causing a reduction in strength, alertness, and digestion. Shift work affects eating habits, our sleep patterns and energy levels.
Meal and Snack Planning
Try to limit use of vending machines and take-out restaurants for your meals and snacks when at work. Bring your own homemade food! Protein-rich foods like tuna, boiled eggs, lentils, cottage cheese, peanut butter, sandwiches made with turkey or chicken, and hummus can help increase alertness and focus; try to incorporate these into your meals and snacks. Eat these foods early in your night shift, when they will give you needed energy. Wholegrain, high fibre carbohydrates like brown bread, rice, and pasta, will provide slow release energy throughout your shift to help keep hunger at bay.
Raw vegetables like baby carrots, radishes, celery, and snow peas are a great way to satisfy the urge to snack; they are low in calories and high in nutrients. Include fruits and salads in your lunch bag, and make your own packet of trail mix containing nuts, whole grain cereal, seeds and dried fruit for a snack.
Limit foods high in sugar, such as chocolate bars and soft drinks, which may give you a short burst of energy, but can leave you feeling sluggish later.
Relax during meals and allow time for digestion. Night workers seem to have the most complaints of indigestion, heartburn, abdominal pains, and flatulence. Avoid fatty, fried or spicy foods, as they may lead to heartburn and indigestion. Eating too much fat can also increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Take time to enjoy your meal, without distractions.
Timing Your Meals
Eat your main meal a few hours before going to work, and pack a small meal and healthy snacks to have during your shift. Try to stick as closely as possible to a normal day-and-night pattern of food intake. Avoid eating, or at least limit intake, between midnight and 6 am, and attempt to eat at the beginning and end of the shift. For example, afternoon workers should have their main meal in the middle of the day, and night workers should eat their main meal before their shift starts, at regular dinnertime. Eating a small breakfast 1-2 hours before day-sleep will help to avoid wakening due to hunger.
Take active breaks during your shift. Go for a brisk walk, stretch, get some fresh air, walk up a flight of stairs. Some light exercise will give you energy to finish your shift, improve your mood and help you sleep better.
What to Watch Out for
Caffeine consumption tends to be highest near the end of a night shift as energy levels decline, and its effects can last up to 8 hours after consumption. This makes falling asleep after work more difficult, and can lead to dehydration and fatigue. Keep a water bottle at your workstation to make sure to stay hydrated throughout your shift.
Try to sleep on a set schedule to help establish a routine and to make sleep during the day easier. Try different patterns of work and sleep to see which is best for you. On your days off try to eat and sleep around the same times that you would if you were working your shift. That way your “internal clock” stays on schedule.
Healthy eating, staying hydrated and sleeping well will help you cope with shift work. However, remember to take care of your mental health too. Learn how to recognize and reduce stress through physical fitness, relaxation techniques and leisure activities. Try to spend quality time with family, friends and loved ones.