Updated: Mar 30, 2022
March 18, 2022 (World Sleep Day)
Ohhhhh shift work. We at NightShift4N6 have a love/hate relationship with it. We live for the extra days off and grocery shopping when no one else is around, but we also know first hand how it can mess with your sleep. How many of us have had to work overtime on a night shift, just to then be at court all day, then be back at work that night?
And that’s just the work obligations. Add in, family, extracurriculars and ideally a social life, and the golden 8 hours of sleep that we should get starts to dwindle down to 6…5…4…3…any? With all of this stacked against us, it’s not surprising to learn that people who work around the clock are more prone to sleep disorders. So much so that “shift work disorder” is a medically recognized category of sleep disorders.
The Science of Sleep
Shift work and sleep deprivation go hand in hand, but do you know why a continuous disrupted sleep routine is detrimental? This is because shift work causes a disruption in our circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is like a 24-hour clock inside of our brains. It’s how our body knows when to sleep and when to be awake and is mostly guided by natural light and darkness. During the day, the retinas in your eyes perceive sunlight and signal your brain to release hormones, like cortisol, that keep you awake and energised. As the sun sets and the light fades your brain releases another hormone (melatonin) which starts making you feel relaxed and tired.
But what happens when we need to be awake when it’s dark and sleep when it’s light out? Well, it throws our circadian rhythm out of whack and we start to have problems functioning normally. Sleep is required so that our body can recover and repair from the events of the day. It will come as no surprise to learn that there is a direct connection between a disrupted sleep cycle and serious medical conditions. Good sleep can support good health, while poor sleep can cause poor health.
Shift work disorder (SWD) is specific to those who work evenings and nights. It can affect different people in different ways, however the hallmarks of this condition are: insomnia, excessive fatigue, and recurring sleep loss. It can be a vicious cycle when you are a part of a rotating shift schedule.
In addition to SWD, weave included some of the common medical conditions associated with a persistent, disrupted, sleep schedule. How many do you recognize in yourself, a loved one, or a co-worker?
Reproductive health issues in women
Poor work performance
Higher accident risk
And yet, in forensics we still sign up to work 24/7, 365. We do it, because we have to, it's a part of our jobs and “it is what it is”. Just “getting through it” isn’t enough, it’s important to get ahead of these potential disastrous effects. So how do we cope?
How to Improve your Sleep while Working Around the Clock
It might seem bleak, but there is a lot of research on Shift Work Disorder that has led experts to recommend the following strategies to cope with sleep problems:
Set a “night work” sleep routine: try to go to bed and wake up at the same time throughout your stretch of night/evening shifts
Mimic the night: Invest in blackout curtains and/or a sleep mask to block out the sunlight as you try to sleep during the day
“Wind down” after a shift: take a warm bath or shower, drink some herbal tea, do some yoga or stretching to relax your body and mind
Minimise exercising close to bedtime
“Know your limits, play within it”: do not force yourself to drive when you’re exhausted. Grab a quick nap before you hit the road or pull over when you start feeling drowsy
Minimise alcohol consumption (it might make you relaxed, but it can also lead to a disrupted sleep)
Maintain a healthy and balanced diet and enjoy caffeine in moderation
Minimise your screen time (TV, phones) as you prepare for sleep
That last point is especially important. Shift work can significantly affect your digestion, which in turn can negatively impact your sleep quality. If you’re trying to wind down after a night shift, but your digestion is amping up because your body thinks it’s breakfast time, the disconnect leads to a poor sleep and a disappointed stomach. From personal experience, we have both benefited from making sure we have healthy food to fuel our evening and overnight shifts. Eating the right things at the right times has helped us better regulate our sleep (and get the most out of our brains) while working the night shift.
As a part of our initiative, we’ve asked our friend, Kat Vernelli to share some of her tips and tricks for surviving shift work. Kat is a registered nutritionist who works with professional women to heal their digestive issues by getting to the root cause of their tummy troubles all while enjoying food freedom. She’s an expert on all things wellness, she also has a partner who is a first responder and shift worker. She really understands the demands that shift work has on our bodies and the importance of balanced nutrition and sufficient sleep to help us get through the night shift.
She taught us that a healthy diet leads to a healthy gut microbiome. An unhealthy gut can lead to digestive issues, such as nausea, heartburn, bloating, indigestion, fatigue, constipation, inflammation…the list goes on. And as a result, you guessed it…all of those will impact your sleep too. Like we said, it’s a vicious cycle.
In Kat’s words “make sleep a priority”. She stresses the importance of slowing down and prioritising sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours and use the tips we mentioned above to really try and get a good sleep, even if you’re working night shift. Sleep and nutrition go hand in hand, our bodies need both to be in sync for us to be alert for our physically and mentally demanding careers.
Kat also recommends taking some time to plan out meals and snacks when you’re on days off so you have healthy options quickly available to you. Kat shared with us her recipe for “Kale & Prosciutto Egg Muffins”, these delicious protein packed and nutrient dense are the perfect “grab-and-go” food. (Scroll for a .pdf version of the recipe.) These are quick to whip together and perfect to take with you to work, no matter what time that might be. For more information about total body wellness and all things nutrition check out Kat Vernelli on social media:
Facebook: Kat Vernelli Nutrition
Happy World Sleep Day and remember to prioritise your sleep and your tummy will thank you
References and Resources
Bahadır Geniş,1 Behcet Cosar,2 Mustafa Ender Taner. Factors affecting mental status and effects of shift working system in healthcare workers. Journal of Psychiatric Nursing. 2020;11(4):275-283.
Tomes, C.; Schram, B.; Orr. Field Monitoring the Effects of Overnight Shift Work on Specialist Tactical Police Training with Heart Rate Variability Analysis. Sustainability 2021, 13, 7895.