Negating the Health Effects of Shift Work
Help Me Make It Through the Night Shift
(HRD) The scientific community has recently made some significant findings regarding the impacts of working the night shift. It was once thought the weight gain experienced from staffing the graveyard shift may have been due to related factors; lack of time to exercise, increase of food intake, etc. Now, however, a recent study has found that a person’s physiology itself is affected by the time adjustment and the increased weight is not due to behavioural factors.
The study, led by University of Colorado (Boulder) senior researcher, Kenneth Wright, found that, on average, test subjects who were put on a simulated night shift sleep schedule used between 52 to 59 fewer calories a day almost immediately, compared to their pre-time change caloric figures.
This new information, that the effects are physiologically-based, is important for the study of shift work impacts. It was already widely reported that working night shifts can increase your risk of acquiring diabetes, as well as making brain functions as slow as what “jet lag” would cause. An added concern is that, in another study reported in Time magazine, it reveals that even after ten years on night shift, the brain does not acclimatize to the situation and actually gets worse. On the upside, however, there appears to be improvement back to pre-shift levels, although it takes upwards of five years of working only day shifts.
What can I do? I have to earn a living!
For many workers, night shift is simply a fact of life. They don’t always have the luxury of changing employment to escape the unwanted health effects they face. However, forewarned is fore armed, as they say, and knowing what the negative impacts are can help a great deal in offsetting the physiological damage. By examining each impact, affected workers can tweak their time off to manage the physiological changes. Most of the shift-related “life hacks” are not exactly revolutionary but can provide an opportunity to soften the blow of altering your body’s circadian rhythm.
Sweat it out!.
To fight against slower metabolic rates experienced by night shift workers, exercising during waking hours is critical. Not only can it help with the reduced calorie consumption revealed in Wright’s study, but can help fight against diabetes and even brain degradation suffered by shift workers. In the UK-based British Journal of Sport Medicine, a British Columbia study demonstrated that vigorous exercise, the heart-pounding, perspiration-producing kind, actually increases the size of the hippocampus region of the brain. This can offset or even repair the effects of the shift work on cognitive processes.
Exercise also aids in the ability to sleep when it is appropriate. We tend to get more sleepy tired when we are physically tired.
Sleepless in Seattle… and everywhere else shifts occur
To help with the negative effects of the sleeplessness facing many night shifters and the accompanying sleep deprivation psychosis, which is a very real possibility as a result, good sleep habits are a must. The Mayo Clinic has issued a list of tips for getting a good sleep. Here is a summary of the Mayo guidelines:
- Whatever your shift, make sure you follow a sleep schedule closely. Our body embraces habits and will prepare physiologically when your internal clock is advising that it’s sleep time. A before-bed routine is crucial for sleep habit forming,
- Do not eat a lot before your sleep period. Digestion processes can provide the body with unwanted energy when you are trying to drop off.
- Comfort, quiet and darkness are essential for a good sleep. You need to be relaxed, not thinking about the light behind your eyelids, annoying noises or a lumpy pillow.
- Avoid napping. Although some experts have touted taking a 30 minute nap as a way to compensate for lost sleep during a late shift, new evidence is now coming to light that the half hour siesta can actually put workers at higher risk of accidents. The risk is due to the grogginess nappers experience upon waking which often doesn’t go away for a good 45 minutes and many workers are unaware of their own impairment. The research by the University of South Australia on the ill-effects of napping is available here
- Managing stress is another aspect that must be observed for good sleep habits. Of course, in our fast-paced world, stress is a part of all our lives. Progressive muscle-relaxation techniques starting at the toes and going all the way up to your face helps. The benefits and instructions for it can be found here.
Exercise your brain, not just your body
To counter the affects of shift work on the brain, many experts agree that challenging one’s grey matter goes a long way to aiding brain function. These challenges can include:
- Crosswords, Sudoku and other puzzles are great for cognitive stimulation.
- Changing your routines: Go to work by a different route, alter your after-work routines (other than your before-bed ritual); anything to break out of established patterns which do not present mental challenges.
- Socializing is important as the thrust and parry of conversation is always challenging.
- Research brain-enhancing foods such as fish, leafy greens and tree nuts.
- Start a hobby. Creativity is great for the brain and doing art, building models or assembling jigsaw puzzles helps no matter how poorly rendered the masterpiece may be at the end of the project. It is the process that provides the benefit.
At the end of the day…. Or night…
Although shift work has demonstrably deleterious effects on our physical systems, being prepared for the effects ensures you are not unduly affected by them. As with so many health-related challenges, the three most important habits that will help you are; a proper diet, regular exercise and having fun. Coincidentally, these three factors are a recipe to improve most things in life.