Keeping a Healthy Mind and Body While Working Nightshift
Illnesses, injuries, births, and emergencies can happen at any time of day or night and quality healthcare from qualified medical professionals must be accessible 24 hours a day. The need to keep hospitals running around the clock has led to millions of professionals working the night shift, defying their body’s natural circadian rhythm to stay up all night and then try to get restful sleep during the day. This nocturnal schedule creates several challenges for the human body and years of night shift work can add up to physical and mental health problems for many. This article will explore some of the most common issues with working night shift and provide suggestions for coping with these challenges and maximizing health.
The most obvious issue with working night shift is loss of sleep. The demands of day-to-day life and balancing family, friends, children, or other obligations can mean that making up sleep during the daytime is difficult and deficits can easily develop. Even for those who are diligent about designating certain daytime hours as sleeping hours, there are disruptions that aren’t there for those sleeping at night such as phone calls, doorbells, lawn mowers, noisy neighbors, construction, sunlight, and many other bright and noisy daytime disturbances.
Room darkening blinds, white noise machines, ear plugs and eye masks, as well as putting signs on the door to not ring the door bell can help combat these issues. Setting phones to silent and letting friends and family know you will not be available until after a certain time can help put limits on disturbances and help people understand that sleep is still necessary, even if it is accumulated at nontraditional times of the day.
Circadian Rhythm Disturbance
In addition to difficulty getting enough hours of sleep, the body often gets confused about WHEN to sleep for night shifters. Our natural circadian rhythms are closely linked to the rising and setting of the sun, wiring us to feel awake in the presence of light and sleepy when it is dark. For those working the night shift, most hours of the night are spent in bright, artificial light and daytime sleeping hours are interrupted by bright sunlight. This can impair the body’s ability to secrete and properly use melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep initiation and quality.
One of the most important methods to combat circadian rhythm disturbances is to maintain a predictable sleep-wake pattern even if it is not the typical diurnal schedule. Going to sleep and waking up close to the same time every day helps your body to develop its own rhythm and regulate melatonin secretion despite the non-traditional pattern. Room darkening blinds and taking over-the-counter melatonin before sleep each day can further help trick your brain into thinking it is really nighttime. People who keep a predictable sleep-wake cycle even on night shift, are less likely to suffer from exhaustion than those with erratic sleep schedules.
There are many physical health issues that have been linked to poor sleep as well, including changes in metabolism, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers, and even increased risk of certain cancers. Irregular appetite and eating patterns can lead to obesity and elevated cholesterol.
Close attention should be given to dietary choices, as night shift workers often have to resort to fast food or unhealthy processed meals. Small efforts to pack a fresh, healthier meal with fruits and vegetables can make a big impact on overall health, particularly when it comes to obesity, cholesterol, and cardiovascular health. Staying well hydrated with water and avoiding excessive caffeine intake is also beneficial. Going for annual wellness checks to monitor BMI, blood pressure, routine labs, and overall wellness (as well as being familiar with your family history and risk factors) all contribute to maximizing physical health as much as possible.
Risk of mental health issues like depression and anxiety are increased for night shift workers, partially due to the chronic disruption in circadian rhythm (which is closely tied to the hormones in the brain responsible for balanced mental health), but also from sleep deprivation and difficulties maintaining a normal social life.
Activities such as meditation or journaling are quick and simple ways to promote self awareness and a healthy mind. Engaging in social activities with people who are very flexible with your schedule or who also work nights can help keep you feeling involved and satisfy social interaction needs. Therapy is also a great option to keep your mental health in check, monitor for any serious changes, and help teach coping skills for the mental health challenges of working night shift.
Though challenging and associated with its own unique risks, nights is a necessary shift for the healthcare community to function properly, and many health professionals will find themselves working it at one point or another, some for many years. Being aware of this life style’s potential effects on your body and mind is a great starting point for trying to stay as healthy as possible. Recognizing struggles and implementing some of the above interventions can help you maximize your health and even enjoy some of the unique opportunities presented by working night shift.