Working night shifts is something that you can either do, or run away from very quickly! I`m in the second option and have total respect for anyone that can turn their sleeping patterns upside down. Whilst we need night shift workers to keep us safe and keep the world as we know it turning, there`s no getting away from the fact that night shifts have an effect on your body.
Our bodies, like the animals around us, work in rhythm. Let`s think about birds and animals ... These creatures are so instinctual. They have no modern distractions to veer them off-course from their basic instincts. If they are not nocturnal then they wake with the sunrise and sleep with the sunset. This is something our ancient ancestors would have done, and so we are all guilty of veering away from our primal instincts a little.
Our bodies rhythms are known as circadian rhythms. Our hormones do different things, at different times of the day, according to the levels of light. For example- just before you wake up in a morning, your adrenal glands start to pump out higher levels of the hormone cortisol, which helps you to have the energy and motivation to get your feet on the floor and get up in a morning. At night, as the light levels fall, our pineal gland secretes melatonin, which helps us to feel sleepy. Our blood sugar levels are intricately connected to our circadian rhythms, as is our growth and repair of new cells and tissues.
When people work night shifts, they are effectively going against their own bodies functioning. When the cortisol is rising, they are trying to sleep, and whilst melatonin is being secreted, they are trying to stay away. It`s the same when you take a long haul flight and get jet lag. It is your body telling you that you are misaligned to your circadian rhythms.
Shift patterns are really demanding on the adrenals. When the body isn`t getting the right support from the correct hormones at the right time then it feels a physical sense of stress and danger. The adrenals will kick into gear and put that person in a fight or flight response, whether they are aware of it or not.
Lack of sleep adds to this picture further. Lack of sleep is one of the most stressful things for the body.
Food choices for shifts
As your shift patterns are already putting extra strain on your adrenals and blood sugar, it is really important to support yourself properly with your food choices. Here are a few simple tips to help you stay in balance whilst working nights.
Your body is already running on adrenaline on a night shift, so it is vital to avoid sugar spikes which will put more pressure on your adrenal glands.
Before a shift, keep your last meal lower in carbohydrates with more of a focus on a good source of protein and healthy fats. Make your last meal as nutrient rich as possible.
When you are snacking at work, graze on nutrient dense snacks that contain protein such as:
Nuts and seeds , Try toasting a few in a dry pan on the hob for a minute or two and add spices such as cumin and caraway. Kale chips. These are really quick and easy to make and are delicious and full of goodness. Nut butters. Almond butter, cashew butter and peanut butter are great with apple chunks. Hummus. Hummus is a great source of protein and its easy to dip a few peeled carrots, chopped cucumbers or celery in. Dark berries. Keep away from sweet fruits such as bananas, grapes and peaches. Stick to berries which won`t spike your blood sugar. Raspberries and a good quality dark chocolate are a real treat. Coconut strips Coconut yoghurt
If you are in need of caffeine then stick to green tea or matcha tea. Coffee raises adrenaline which will also shoot insulin levels through the roof. Green tea contains L-theanine which is a great nutrient to combat anxiety . Have a cup half way through your shift to help you get through the second half. Don`t have any within 4 hours of returning to bed though or you may stay awake.
Make sure you get your water intake in. 3 - 4 pints of water each day is necessary for an adult. That`s 1.5 - 2 litres.
Sugary snacks processed foods High carbohydrate meals such as pasta and bread Soda`s Cake and biscuits
Make sure that you have excellent food choices available before you have your last sleep before your shifts begin. Food prep can go along way... keep your fridge stocked with already chopped veggies in containers, cooked meats and cooked rice so that you can grab a selection of each to take with you for your meal.
There is evidence that exercise before a shift can help release endorphins that will contribute to feeling more refreshed. Exercise doesn`t have to be strenuous. Stretching, gentle yoga or a walk are equally as useful.
Thrive Clinical Nutrition and Naturopathic Health Eve Morley BA hons. NT. FNTP. AMNNA. Soc Nat
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