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7 Tips for Surviving Shift Work

New studies show that shift work can contribute to musculoskeletal conditions, obesity and mental health problems. Therefore we need to look after our mind and body in the workplace.

One of the main factors of shift work itself is working in a stressful environment that can disrupt our sleep and hormones, especially leptin and ghrelin (these hormones regulate appetite and satiety). This explains why the minute we are overtired our willpower and healthy eating habits go out the window.

There are ways to deal with the effects of shift work and here are my top seven tips for nurses and shift workers.

1. Try and get your eight hours sleep a day (where possible)

Dr. Lawrence Epstein, author of Improving Sleep: A guide to a good night’s rest, says that the best time to regulate your circadian rhythm is between 22.00 and 06.00 hours. Basically, when it is dark you are meant to sleep, but for times when you have to sleep during the day, avoid excess light in your bedroom. Artificial light will trick your pineal gland in the brain to decrease the production of melatonin, which is essential for sleep regulation. So do your best to make your room as dark as possible – switch o any lights that may be coming from the TV or clock radio, and use blackened blinds if you can. Some like to sleep with an eye mask.

2. Eat foods high in magnesium

This important mineral plays a key role in the regulation of sleep. A lack of the nutrient magnesium will cause you to wake up after a few hours and not be able to return to sleep. Dr Mark Hyman states that magnesium is “the most powerful relaxation mineral” and that even a small magnesium deficiency can disrupt the nervous system and cause a huge list of symptoms and diseases including insomnia, anxiety, PMS, obesity, irritability, constipation, headaches and asthma.

Good natural sources include green leafy vegetables, apples, lemons, pumpkin seeds and almonds. Hyman suggests to stop draining your body of magnesium, mainly from limiting coffee, soft drinks and by reducing excess salt and sugar in your diet. Another brilliant way to achieve this is by practicing active relaxation. Much needed to improve the wellbeing of shift workers? I think so.

3. Breathe through your nose

Sounds effortlessly simple but when we are tired and stressed we tend to shallow breathe through our mouth and this is ineffective, says Dr. John Douillard.

“When my children were infants, I noticed that they could only naturally breathe through their nose. For them, things were simple: the mouth was for eating, the nose for breathing.” Douillard, an Ayurvedic practitioner, claims that adequate nasal breaths activate the lower lobes of the lungs, and because this is where the majority of blood is situated then more oxygen can be absorbed into the blood.

“When you have a lot of oxygen in your brain your nervous system calms down.” Moreover, Douillard states that shallow mouth breathing fills the middle and upper lungs but tends not to engage the lower lobes, where there is an abundance of the parasympathetic nerve receptors. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated we are calmer, our heart rate slows down and our adrenal glands slow the production of stress hormones. Very much needed during stressful times throughout the shift.

In his bestselling book Body, Mind, and Sport, Douillard explains the process of taking big, SLOW diaphragmatic breaths in and out through your nose. “Take three deep breaths through your nose; maximum breath in and maximum breath out. Breathe only through your nose. Repeat this cycle a couple of times and notice the difference.”

4. Control your cortisol

Cortisol is one of several stress-response hormones produced by the adrenal glands. In his book The Cortisol Connection, Dr. Shawn Talbott explains that “cortisol can be both a ‘good thing’ and a ‘bad thing’ depending on how much cortisol is present in the body and how long it ‘hangs around’. Cortisol turns ‘bad’ when you either have too much of it or are exposed to it on a regular basis.”

Talbott also writes that a raised cortisol level, brought on by stress, has numerous consequences to your health including a suppressed immune system, diabetes, obesity, insomnia and high blood pressure.

How do we reduce cortisol? You’ve heard it before – the familiar message that health experts (including your dear old grandmother) have told us for years – get enough sleep, eat right and exercise. Interestingly, those times during a shift when all you can do is laugh is actually lowering cortisol too. Psychiatrist Dr. William Fry has been studying the benefits of laughter since the ’60s and has found links to laughter and lowered levels of this stress hormone.

5. Drink more water

Nephrologist Steven Guest says, “Fluid losses occur continuously, from skin evaporation, breathing, urine, and stool, and these losses must be replaced daily for good health.” The general consensus is to consume eight glasses per day (preferably filtered water), which should be adhered to especially in times of stress and while working in an environment that uses heating/cooling.

After sleeping you have most likely gone approximately eight hours without water so your body is going to crave it. Having two large glasses of water first thing in the morning is a great way to wake up your metabolism. Don’t like plain water? Jess Ainscough, The Wellness Warrior, ‘pimps’ her water by adding a little apple cider vinegar, lemon, cucumber, essential oils, spirulina or chlorophyll. Take water with you to work and make sure you remind yourself to actually drink it!

6. Spending time outdoors

Try and break the ‘work-eat-sleep’ cycle by going for a walk or exercising outside. Sometimes during a long stretch of night shifts it is common not to see the blessed sun at all. Try getting up a little earlier to take a stroll outside or if you wake up in the middle of the day and can’t get back to sleep, try getting outside for a while before you have another nap. The mental and physical benefits from the great outdoors are huge. According to an article in Dermato-Endocrinology, the benefits of the great outdoors include: an increase of endorphins, increased energy, increased sense of wellbeing and calmness, a greater feeling of revitalization and positive engagement, and decreases in tension, anger and depression. So, spend some time outside before or after your shift, or on your lunch break if you can.

7. Eat right

Eating a diet high in nutrients has the added benefits of reducing unwanted stress on the body brought on by toxins in our food. Knowing our rosters in advance gives us ample time to prepare nourishing food for ourselves. I batch cook several meals in advance when I know my nights are coming up or if I have a short changeover. at way I know what food I am putting into my body to avoid snacking on highly processed foods.

Take healthy snacks to work like raw vegetable sticks with dips, nuts, seeds and boiled eggs. I also believe in the concept of ‘crowding out’ meaning if you add in more nourishing whole foods you won’t desire unhealthy food. Try crowding out by stocking up on lots of fresh vegetables and even try a green smoothie.

If you are stuck for ideas for healthy snacks and meals to take to work, you can download the FREE e-book The Well Nurse Lunch Box on

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