Night shift workers tell Moneyish how they keep the odd hours from hurting their health.
No wonder it’s called the graveyard shift.
A growing body of research warns that working overnight is destroying your health. The University of Colorado at Boulder just reported that eating at night and sleeping by day — as night-shift workers must do — alters more than 100 key proteins in the blood, including those influencing blood sugar, energy metabolism and immune function. That could explain why overnight workers are more prone to issues like diabetes, obesity and certain cancers — and why night-shift employees like Paolo Guimaraes often feel just plain awful.
“I have been more irritable, and have had an increased appetite,” said Guimaraes, 44, a direct support professional for the developmentally disabled, whose duties include giving medication, cooking, light housework and providing transportation for two Florida group homes. He began working night shifts in 2016 because it pays $3 more per hour than the day rate. He starts at 11 p.m. four nights a week, and works until anywhere from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., depending on the day.
Guimaraes also suffers from sleep apnea, which makes the six hours of sleep he gets — already short of the recommended seven to nine hours — even less restful. “I may sleep a short time and wake up still tired,” he said, adding, “although it has been rough, I am happy. I enjoy the work, and the people I work with.”
Melissa Calvo, 43, a Long Island mother of three, worked from 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. three days a week as a labor and delivery nurse for 11 years. “But nobody ever really gets used to working the night shift and sleeping during the daytime,” she told Moneyish. “Weight gain was a big issue for the night girls — because you’re sleeping half the day when you should be eating, and then eating when your body should be sleeping. And not seeing the sun, you feel so off and tired all of the time, and you’re cranky.”
She didn’t have a choice when she was first assigned nights at age 26, as the day shifts went to veteran nurses, but said the schedule actually worked for her family because she could come home in time to put the kids on the school bus in the morning, nap, and then take care of chores and picking them up from school in the afternoon while her husband worked. “I missed a lot of sleep because I had a hard time sleeping during the day,” she said. “I’d end up doing laundry or getting dinner together. I was ‘class mom’ and went on field trips.”
About 15 million Americans work full time on evening shifts (until 11 p.m. or so), the night shift (often 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.), rotating shifts (taking turns covering continuous 24-hour shifts, like in hospitals, running two or three shifts per day), or other irregular schedules. Most are blue-collar workers like police officers and firefighters, nurses, bartenders and food servers, manufacturing plant employees and transportation workers. And toiling overnight takes its toll on them.
“There are all kinds of physical and mental issues with night-shift work that mirror what we’ve seen for short sleepers in general,” Chris Brantner, a certified sleep coach and founder of SleepZoo.com, told Moneyish.
The World Health Organization classified night shift work as a probable carcinogen in 2007 because its disruption to the body’s circadian rhythm — which signals our cells to produce specific hormones at specific times based on a 24-hour day-night cycle — appears to have cancer-causing effects.
That’s recently come into question by a 2016 Oxford study, but a 2012 study of 18,500 Danish women between 1964 and 1999 found those that worked nights had a 40% higher risk of developing breast cancer. In 2015, an international team of researchers studied women working rotating night shifts for five or more years, and found they carried an 11% greater mortality risk from all causes, and a 19% greater risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) death. Women on rotating night shifts for 15 years or more were 23% more likely to die from CVD, and 25% more likely to die from lung cancer.
Plus, the night shift lifestyle is linked with behaviors that increase cancer risk, such as getting insufficient sleep, smoking, eating junk food and getting less sleep. Night-shift work has also been associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and stress. And then there’s simple fatigue, which can lead to car accidents, poor decision-making and worsening mood.
Part of the problem is that going against the natural day-night cycle has only been picked up by many workers and students in the last 100 years or so. “Our bodies are tied to that natural circadian rhythm where the sun goes down, and our body starts winding down; and when the sun comes up, our bodies want to wake up,” said Brantner. “So if you spin that around, you are basically trying to reprogram your body … and our evolution hasn’t figured out how to deal with that yet.”
It can also impact relationships, research shows, as many night shift workers start feeling isolated from friends and family because it’s hard to wake up for those barbecues or birthday parties when you’re feeling jet-lagged every day. Exhaustion and irritability aren’t aphrodisiacs for your sex life, either, for the rare times your hours do overlap with a partner working a more traditional schedule.
Not everyone can change their hours or get another job, however. Plus, many people like Guimaraes love their gigs, irregular hours and all. So here are some ways that night-owl workers can take care of themselves:
Stick to a schedule. Our bodies thrive on routine. Come home from work and sleep at the same time every morning, and wake up at the same time each afternoon. And stick to that schedule — even on your days off. You may want to reverse it to see family and friends, but “the best thing you can do is keep your own regular hours,” said Brantner. “Sleep during the day and stay up at night, so that you don’t throw your routine off again.”
Wear dark glasses. It’s hard for many night workers to sleep in the morning. “Whether you’re tired or not, you’re hit in the face with sunlight, and that’s not going to help your brain think, ‘OK, it’s time to go to bed,’” said Brantner. “Wear dark glasses or blue light-blocking glasses when you get off your shift, to trick your brain into thinking it’s time to wind down.”
Black out your bedroom. You need to get a full “night’s” sleep when you get home, so make your room as night-like as possible. Hang blackout curtains to keep the sun out. Play a white noise app to block out daytime noises. Keep screens like your phone, laptop, tablet and TV out. And try aromatherapy, like lavender or chamomile. “Make your bedroom a place of relaxation — and keep all light out,” said Brantner. And writing a to-do list for just five minutes before you lie down can help you pass out 1o minutes faster.
Only drink coffee early in your shift. “A lot of people drink coffee to try to stay awake, but that caffeine will stay in your system for about six hours,” warned Brantner. “Even if you are able to fall asleep … you’re not getting the deep sleep that you need.” Wake up at work by taking a walk, drinking water, playing upbeat music, or turning down the temperature instead.
And don’t drink alcohol when you get off. Having a “nightcap” to unwind when you get home the next morning is a Zs buzzkill. “Even one or two drinks can affect the second half of your sleep, because your body starts processing it as a stimulant,” explained Brantner. “That’s why if you’ve ever had too many drinks, you wake up at four in the morning staring at the ceiling. It also suppresses the REM sleep you need.”
Eat healthy. “Your hunger hormones are out of whack from lack of sleep, and we know that people who sleep six hours or fewer per night on average consume about 300 extra calories the following day,” said Brantner. So pack your own healthy bites, like almonds, an apple and some string cheese, and sip plenty of water, instead of opting for vending-machine candy and soda. Sugary stuff will perk you up in the short-term, but eventually lead to a crash.
Exercise. Working out can counteract a number of night-shift side effects: It helps you maintain weight and sleep better, and it also boosts mood. But when to go? Guimaraes prefers working out in the afternoon before work. “I go after I have had some sleep, so I feel a bit recharged,” he said. Brantner recommends that, as well. “There is some worry that working out before bed (in the morning for night shift workers) can ramp you up and up your core temperature, making it more difficult to go to sleep,” he said.
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