I don’t care what anyone says, working nightshift is seriously hard. Unless you have worked it yourself you really have no idea. I used to get so annoyed when people would say to me ‘oh I wish I could sleep all day’, ‘but nightshift would be easy – isn’t everyone just asleep all night!’ I usually responded by saying that they were more than welcome to go and work my four nights for me and see how their remarks measured up!
I am really over watching all these people on social media tell me ‘no excuses’, ‘do your walk every morning’, ‘avoid junk food and eat whole foods.’ I would pay good money to see them walk their talk after a run of nightshifts worked while suffering from severe sleep deprivation! I work nightshift pretty much every week, and I seriously struggle to get my walk and workouts in, eat healthy food when I’m starving at 4am and get a good, restful sleep that leaves me feeling energised. Most of the vending machines at work have healthy food, but of course I managed to track down the singular ‘traditional’ vending machine within my first week of starting work…despite the fact it’s nowhere near my area.
Nightshift used to make me feel nauseous…now it seems to make me seriously hungry. I could sit there and eat junk food all night, but seeing as that makes me feel awful I don’t…or at least I try not to. According to Ariana Huffington’s ‘The Sleep Revolution’, people who get less sleep produce more of the hormone Grehlin– also known as ‘the hunger hormone’ which causes an increase in appetite, and less of the hormone ‘Leptin’, also known as the ‘satiety hormone’, which helps to lower our appetite. Makes sense!
So here are my top tips for surviving nightshift –
Drink water – this is probably my number one tip. When you are sleeping all day you will more than likely wake up dehydrated. I like to drink a 500ml glass of warm water with lemon juice, apple cider vinegar and L-Glutamine powder as soon as I wake up, and at least 30 minutes before consuming any food. This has helped in preventing ‘night shift headaches’ which were all too common for me. Throughout my shift I ensure that I stay hydrated, and if I do feel hungry (which is basically the whole 12 hours) I drink water first, just to make sure it’s real hunger, not just a craving for processed food to help me stay awake.
Watch your caffeine intake – I used to drink a Diet Coke every night at about 1am, and unsurprisingly my sleep the next day was always broken and of a poor quality. Then, I would wake up exhausted and head to work, craving my 1am Diet Coke and starting the whole cycle again. Since I gave up Diet Coke I have found that my quality of sleep in between night shifts is on another level. I used to wake up numerous times, and struggle to get back to sleep. Now, I have been known to sleep from 8:30am to 6:00pm! So, if you are struggling with poor sleep and are someone who drinks caffeinated soft drinks, I would recommend trialling giving them up and going for the green tea instead! Or any other herbal tea, caffeinated or not. I also limit my caffeine intake, and don’t have any green tea after 2am…unless it’s my last night and I feel like I really need it. Green tea gets me through my nights without fail, and by bringing my own tea bags from home I’m also saving money!
Prioritise sleep – during your night shifts sleep needs to be your priority. I don’t have children, so unfortunately I don’t have any tips for parents, however I have found that ensuring you get enough sleep to function effectively at work is extremely important. At work I know that need to be alert and on the ball, and I know I cannot do this unless I am well rested. Lack of sleep effects cognitive performance, including decision making skills and reaction times. In regards to phones, I turn mine to airplane mode while I’m sleeping during the day. That way no one is able to call or message and wake me up. You need to look out for yourself first, and if this means that no one can reach you for eight hours well that’s it! I also use an eye mask and ear plugs, and ensure my bedroom is cool by using either my fan, the air conditioner or both. These things have all contributed to a massive improvement in my ‘night shift sleeps.’
Getting enough sleep plays a huge factor in both our physical and mental wellbeing. I’m sure everyone has experienced feeling ‘delicate’ while working, or after working a run of nights. Huffington writes of the results of the Great British Sleep Survey, which found that sleep deprived people are seven times more likely to experience feelings of helplessness and five more times likely to feel lonely. Additionally, she devotes a section, aptly named ‘Doctors Without Bedtimes’, to the glorification of sleeplessness in the healthcare industry. Lack of sleep can lead to ‘fatigue related adverse events’ which involve harm caused to patients from mistakes made by exhausted healthcare workers. Huffington also writes that sleep deprived healthcare workers have been found to show less empathy, which may also lead to more adverse outcomes. (I’m sure most of us on our third or fourth night with interrupted day time sleep can relate!) For this reason, patient safety, it is important that we as healthcare workers (and shift workers in other industries) get enough sleep. It is imperative we undertake our jobs to the best of our ability and cannot do this when we are deprived of sleep.
Limit your screen time – It has been found that exposure to blue light wavelengths, found in the electronic that we treasure so dearly (laptops, tablets, smartphones) are designed to boost attention, reaction times and mood – therefore making us more alert. Not exactly ideal when you are already fighting a battle to sleep during the day, a time which is unnatural for our bodies. Additionally, a study undertaken by Harvard researchers found that blue light suppressed the secretion of melatonin and caused a shift in circadian rhythms, even more so than green light. This means that using our phones before trying to get to sleep can have a negative effect on us getting to sleep, as well as the quality of the sleep we do get! I try to minimise the amount of screen time before bed anyway, but especially in the mornings after nightshift. I put my phone on airplane mode, set my alarm and make a conscious effort not to look at it again until my alarm goes off. Ideally, I would put it on charge away from my bed…but I haven’t quite got there yet. Something to work towards!
Night shift mode – this is a new iPhone feature that ‘warms’ the light on your phone, making it more of a red undertone and in turn minimising exposure to the aforementioned blue light when you are trying to wind down before sleep. I highly recommend this! I use it in the mornings after nightshift and before bedtime at night, depending on when I am working and sleeping.
Prepare your meals and snacks – I am not one of those people who eat their dinner before work and then have my next meal at breakfast. I need healthy snacks on nightshift to keep my energy up and stop me from bingeing on junk food. Take time to prepare healthy snacks that will fill you up and stop you from tucking into refined sugar. And remember, if you do eat the odd ‘treat’ it’s absolutely not the end of the world! We all do what we have to do to get through nights.
Exercise – I never used to exercise during my nightshifts. I always figured that I was too tired, and it would just make me more tired. Since attempting to improve my energy levels, I have started small…going for walks when I wake up or attending a hot yoga class before my shift. And I have found that my energy levels have improved! I feel much better for it during my nights. However, if I am truly exhausted I will skip exercise in favour of more sleep. There is no point waking up, putting yourself through a gruelling workout and then heading to work absolutely exhausted. Sometimes, you just need to listen to your body and give it what it needs. However, if you find you are constantly exhausted and unwilling to exercise, try adding a 30 minute walk to your day. Vitamin D is something we are all lacking in, and at the risk of sounding like one of those irritating people, you really do feel so good getting out in the fresh air and sunshine after being cooped inside all day and night. Exercise also assists in decreasing stress levels and improving quality of sleep!
Breathe – taking long, slow deep breaths help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to promote a energised body and calm mind. Whenever I feel myself getting overwhelmed with my tasks at hand or dealing with a difficult situation, I simply remember to take long slow breaths, making the inhale and exhale as long as possible. At least three should have you feeling calmer and more focused, but see how long you can go for! Additionally, if I’m feeling really overwhelmed I will try and mindfully go about my tasks and cares, putting all my focus into what I am doing at that very moment. This helps me to be more productive and not get caught up in stressing, which is very easy to do when you’re run off your feet at 4am.
Most importantly, if you miss a workout in favour of sleep or if you gorge on junk all night, remember you are not a failure! Just take a deep breath and move on. Tomorrow is a new day, and a chance for you to try again. Night shift is hard, and maintaining a lifestyle while working nightshift is even harder. My personal trainer even said to me the other day ‘you’re crazy working out after nightshift! I couldn’t do that!’ So congratulate yourself for wanting to look after yourself, and remember we are doing something on a consistent basis that the rest of society probably couldn’t handle. Don’t try and overhaul your whole life overnight. Changing one little thing at a time will help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and giving up.
Harvard Health Publications 2015, ‘Blue Light has a dark side’, Harvard Medical School, USA, viewed 26th October 2016 <http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side>
Huffington, A 2016 ‘The Sleep Revolution’, WH Allen, London, Great Britain.
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