Ah, sleep. We need it, we love it, we crave it, we promise ourselves that we’ll get more of it, and yet quality sleep remains out of reach for so many of us these days. Some do it to themselves, staying up late to watch bad TV (or great TV, which is more understandable) and browse blogs (health blogs that, ironically enough, often write about the importance of sleep). There, the answer is simple: stop staying up. Resisting technology’s allure might be difficult, but at least it’s completely within your power to do so. Others have it tougher. Shift workers, for example, can’t just up and switch careers or get a new schedule after reading a blog. Since this is not the “original affluent society,” we have to work to pay for food, shelter, and other basic necessities, and we have to take what we can get.
Questions from shift workers come in quite frequently:
I am currently a firefighter/paramedic in Laredo, TX. Over a year ago, I joined G7 Athletics and began eating according to the Primal Blueprint diet. I quickly started seeing great results with my body and even lost 15 lbs. I was leaner and felt healthier. During this time I was in the Laredo Fire Academy on an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. After graduating from the academy, I began shift work and slowly started seeing weight gain. I have seen the greatest gains in my abdominal area and now weigh as much as I did before I started the Primal Blueprint diet. I work 24 hours on shift and have 48 hours off. Most times on shift, I am on the ambulance, get an average number of 12 calls throughout the day, and usually don’t get to sleep at night.
It seems to me that the only factors that have changed in my life are my sleep patterns and my work related stress levels. I would like to get back to feeling fitter and healthier. Is there any advice you can give me based on my situation? Anything would be greatly appreciated!!
I work nights, as well as my wife. We are on a total night schedule, sleeping from 7am to 3pm and working 6pm to 6am. We get our 7 hours and feel good, but somedays working against our circadian rhythms to keep social engagements and have a somewhat of a normal life at times works is hard. I know the best thing would be to not work nights at all. Our intention is to get off them as soon as possible, but in the mean time is there anything we can do? A supplement perhaps? Those of us in healthcare could use a little help. Any idea would be helpful.
It’s a tough situation, balancing the physiological demands of a diurnal mammal (you) with the demands of a job in direct opposition to the former. What can a shift worker do, save finding a new career path?
Embrace Your Situation
For all intents and purposes, this is your life. It may change down the road, but you are a shift worker for now. Accept it. It’s not ideal, but it will be a lot worse if you go about your days (er, nights) lamenting your situation. Even just looking in the mirror every day and verbally reminding yourself that “I am a shift worker and I’m going to get through this” will help. Fighting or avoiding the reality of a situation, instead of accepting and working with it, will only heap more stress and cortisol on your shoulders (and more fat on your belly).
Be Strict About Your Diet
Hew as closely as you can to the Primal eating plan. Don’t give in to vending machine wares and stale day-old donuts lurking in greasy pink boxes leftover from the dayshift. Get even more serious about putting quality fuel in your body than ever before. If that means cooking your own food exclusively to avoid gluten and seed oils, so be it. In your perpetually stressed state, your sensitivity to bad food will be heightened.
You are starting from behind. Lifestyle stressors beset you on all sides. Your body’s abilities to recover and perform are dampened, and the last thing you want to do is add another couple heaping tablespoons of stress to the mix. As such, you must choose your workouts wisely. If it were me working night shifts for an extended period of time I’d mostly skip metabolic conditioning. No long CrossFit WODs, no extended Tabata sessions, no half marathons, nothing that spikes cortisol and leaves you breathless and on the verge of puking. Once a week sprints with full recovery? Sure. Long walks? Great. Heavy lifting? Go for it, but keep it heavy and intense and keep the volume low. If you’re doing PBF style bodyweight exercises, consider adding resistance and keeping the reps low. Two days a week of lifting is perfect; three may be too much. Keep an eye on how you feel. If you stall on the same weight twice, drop the weight or the volume. If you can’t recover in between sprints, make them shorter by ten yards until you can.
Trick Your Body
This is probably the most important strategy. Your body expects light when awake and darkness when asleep. You can’t totally replace sunlight and nighttime, but you can get pretty close. When you’re at work, keep the lights on. If you work outdoors at night – say, as a cop, a security guard, or in the military – consider light therapy. Once you’re off work, don a pair of dark/orange safety glasses before you venture out into the light and don’t remove them until you’re ready for bed. Keep your bedroom shades drawn, block out any light sources, and keep your bedroom as dark as possible. The trick is to mimic daytime light conditions during your waking hours and nighttime light conditions during your “evening” and sleeping hours to the best of your ability.
Supplements can help fill in the gaps between the reality of our modern lifestyles (stuck in the office all day with limited exposure to sun, poor and inadequate sleep, regular dietary compromises, sucking down smog to and from work, etc.) and an imaginary ideal lifestyle (just the right amount of sun time and shuteye, perfect Primal food at every meal, limited exposure to environmental toxins, etc.). So, what are some supplements to consider for a late night shift worker? Well, make sure you cover the basics (omega-3s, vitamin D, various minerals, etc). These are nutrients that everyone needs, but you have less room for error so make sure you supplement if you’re not able to obtain what you need through food.
Also, melatonin has been shown to improve shift workers’ sleep and wakefulness patterns. In one study, compared to placebo and no treatment at all, 5 mg melatonin taken at “desired bedtime” improved the sleep and alertness of cops working a night shift. They got better sleep when they wanted it and felt more alert at night while on the beat. A later study had similar findings. Increasing dosages of melatonin (up to 3 mg) in patients undergoing simulated late shift work was actually able to shift their circadian phases (as evidenced by changes in body temperature and melatonin secretion). Sleep and alertness (at the right times) also improved. They took fewer naps. Note that 0.5 mg was not as effective as 3 mg. Take at least 3 mg melatonin at your desired bedtime, and be consistent with it.
Avoid Coffee and Embrace Black Tea
Give up coffee, especially if you display the hallmarks of cortisol problems: belly fat accumulation and poor performance in the gym. Or, at least cut way back. Consider going for black tea instead, which has been shown to normalize cortisol. If you keep drinking coffee (let’s face it, it’s delicious), try not to rely on it. Have a cup at the start of your shift – since it’s “morning” for you – but no more.
Ultimately, what the human animal does best is adapt, often to some pretty horrible conditions. Consider how many people go about their days without apparent problems and live long lives eating the modern processed diet. Consider the amount of unimaginable cruelty, war, genocide, and famine occurring today and throughout all history, and still people live on. So you can handle shift work. Maybe not for the rest of your life, maybe not for ten years without serious ramifications to your health and quality of life, but you can handle shift work now and in the near future. Just don’t get complacent. Start, today, working toward the goal of getting off shift work, because no amount of supplementation, smart training, diet perfection, and artificial light trickery will make up for a lifestyle that contradicts your basic physiology.
Any shift workers in here? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t? Let us know in the comment section!