Health Tips For Shift Workers

If someone says, working 9 to 5 to me, it makes me think of that song by Dolly Parton and makes me reminisce about the 80’s because lets face it, who works 9 to 5 anymore?!

With the dawn of technology and 24/7 access to the internet our work day is spreading but none more so than for the shift worker. Police and Ambulance Service, Doctors and Nurses to name but a few are working hours that can cause long lasting health problems. Which is ironic because it seems the people that are there to look after us are suffering the most with their health.

So I would like to offer up some advice for anyone out there that has to work those dreaded night shifts or just has erratic work patterns that make it more difficult to stay healthy. But first here are some statistics on how shift work effects the bodies function.

Shift work is associated with increased risk for obesity, diabetes and CVD – Karlsson et al. (2003)

One study showed, 10 days of circadian misalignment (eating and sleeping 12 hours out of phase from their normal habitual times) resulted in

  • Decreased leptin (a hormone that regulates appetite)

  • Increased glucose (+7%) and Insulin (+22%)

  • Increased mean arterial pressure (+3%)

  • 3 out of 8 subjects exhibited post consumption glucose responses in the range typical of a pre-diabetic state

So what is the answer, other than change your job?!

Obviously if you are prone to more health risks due to your job the more conscious you will need to be about your diet. As it’s more difficult to create structure we need to do the best we can with what we have.

So here is my advice for any shift worker looking to stay healthy, especially through the winter months.

  1. Track your calories. Having long 12 hour shifts is going to make you prone to eating little and often, which contrary to popular belief is not a good idea. You will be more likely to over consume calories and reach for sugary snacks. So first things first, find out just how much you are actually consuming both on work days and days off. There are many trackers available on your phone so it’s not a difficult job, myfitnesspal is the first that comes to mind.

  2. Calculate how many calories you should be eating. This will be based on your height, age, current weight and activity level. This is a good calculator to use. Then you will have some idea where you should be after you have spent some time already tracking your calories.

  3. Stick to an eating window. This may vary depending on your shift time but all we are trying to do here is create some sort of consistency and avoid erratic eating, that is sometimes just a distraction or out or boredom. So if you are on a night shift, say starting at 6pm and finishing at 6am, aim to stop eating by midnight. You will have consumed calories within the time before you have started work so be conscious of when to stop eating in order to create as much of a pattern as possible.

  4. Protein is the most important macronutrient you can consume. Aim to consume some form of protein at every meal. This will help with the functioning of all the systems in your body, including immune function. As well as this protein keeps you feeling fuller for longer and so can help with weight loss. Aim to consume anywhere between 1.2 to 1.5g per kg of bodyweight.

  5. Once you have set your calories and your protein you can fill in the rest of your calories with carbs and fats. But don’t think thats the green light to just eat whatever you want. Eat mainly plant based foods with healthy protein and keep sugary processed foods to a minimum. Having said that it can work well if you set aside 300cals for a little junk food. Whatever it may be, a kit kat, bag of crisps but keep it within your allowed calories, after all this is real life, right?!

  6. Next, lets look at sleep. This should be in a cool room, with blackout blinds and no flashing clocks or phones in the room. Even though your sleep pattern is erratic, making your environment conducive for good sleep is key.

  7. Stay hydrated as this will help you with cravings and tiredness. Buy a reusable water bottle and make sure you sip water throughout your shift.

  8. And finally, supplements. Every shift work should be taking Vitamin D, especially in the winter. If you are someone that has minimum exposure to the sun because of your job you need to supplement. Vitamin D deficiencies have been associated to the development of cancer, CVD and autoimmune disorders. The current RNI is 400IUs per day which would be far too low for a shift worker on nights. You could easily consume 1000IU’s per day safely. Another supplement that could be helpful is magnesium. Magnesium can be found in nuts and leafy green vegetables but if you are struggling to consume enough try a supplement. The benefits are improved insulin sensitivity and reduced blood pressure, as well as having a slight sedative effect so may help with sleep.

There is still not enough research on this area to say exactly what the real long lasting effects of shift work are but if you can stay as healthy as possible whilst doing your job at least you will minimise your risk.

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