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Practical steps to reduce the toll of shift work on your body

Shift work is defined as any work schedule that deviates from the regular 9am – 5pm work day. We now understand the impact that shift work can have on the body and mind, and it stems from disruption to the circadian rhythms that control many internal functions. Over time, shift work increases the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression and diabetes. It can affect the metabolism, immune system and hormone balance. On average, a night shift worker gets 2 – 4 hours less sleep than the average person. For many people, shift work is an economic necessity, or an unavoidable part of a job they love. Fortunately, there are ways of minimising the physiological consequences.
Here are some top tips to survive a shift work schedule.
Get shady
If you finish work in the morning, put dark sunglasses on before you head home
This helps to send a signal to your brain to start producing melatonin, your sleep-inducing hormone.
Don’t “fuel up” during working hours on junk food
When we’re tired, our bodies tend to crave sugar and carbohydrates for a quick energy boost. Tiredness can also lead to problems with appetite regulation. Be aware of this and keep a selection of healthy, low calorie snacks close at hand.
Have regular meal times
This ties into the circadian rhythms. Eating three meals at evenly spaced intervals during the time you are awake is optimal. Do not eat your biggest meal within 3 hours of going to sleep, as it may affect sleep quality.
Eat fruits, vegetables and cereals
Shift workers have an increased risk of stomach problems and are 8 times more likely to develop a peptic ulcer. Eating a diet rich in these foods is thought to decrease the risk of these issues.
Mind the caffeine
It may well be unrealistic to ban caffeine during working hours, but remember that it can interfere with sleep for up to 6 hours after consumption. Try to minimise your intake towards the end of your shift, to improve sleep quality. As a general rule, no caffeine for 4 hours before the time you want to sleep, although 6 hours is better.
Keep your bedroom really, really dark
If you’re a shift worker, think about investing in blackout curtains and a sleep mask to reduce your exposure to daylight.
Keep your bedroom cool
This is another way to influence your circadian rhythms, as a drop in temperature normally takes place at night time. An air conditioning unit is a worthwhile addition to the bedroom of a shift worker.
Get enough sleep
It sounds simple and obvious, but studies have consistently shown shift workers are likely to get less sleep. One study of police officers in America found that those who worked nights were 14 times more likely to get less than 6 hours sleep a day. Aim for 7 to 8 for optimal health and functioning.
Get regular exercise
The health benefits will help to counteract some of the negative impacts of shift work on the body and mind, plus it helps to reduce stress and promote a feeling of wellbeing.
Educate your friends and family about your sleep needs
Make sure you’re not getting interrupted with phone calls, visitors, or demands for your time when you need to be sleeping.
Try a split sleep for night shifts
With this technique, you sleep for four hours before your shift starts, and another four when it finishes. It is thought to be beneficial because both sleep segments incorporate part of the time when your circadian rhythm would normally expect the body to be at rest.
Take a nap
A nap of 90 minutes before a night shift has been shown to enhance alertness and stamina.

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