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How To Have A Balanced Sleep-Wake Cycle If You Work Overnight Shifts

Nurse Putting on a Medical Mask in a Hospital
Image by Santi Nunez / Stocksy
March 19, 2021
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After reflecting on the anniversary of the pandemic, it's clear that feelings of both grief and gratitude are ever-present themes. Grief for the lives and experiences lost, and overdue gratitude for the essential workers who have helped to heal, feed, and protect the population. And while essential workers are getting the recognition they deserve this year, there is one challenging aspect to their jobs that can often be overlooked: working overnight shifts.

Because of the circadian rhythm, people who work night shifts (health care professionals, firefighters, etc.) are literally working against nature to stay awake and provide vital services to our communities. If you work night shifts, you know this better than anyone, and you may be wondering how to support your sleep-wake cycle, despite a demanding schedule. 

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How to support your sleep cycle during a night shift.

Regardless of our jobs or our sleep schedules, the body will always work on a light-dark cycle, functional medicine doctor Amy Shah, M.D., tells mbg. That 24-hour body clock, or circadian rhythm, is mainly influenced by temperature and light. 

While it's impossible to reverse this body clock, "There are things you should do, even more so than the regular person, to mitigate the effects of working against your biological rhythm," she says to overnight workers. Here are just a few:


Limit blue light.

"Someone who's working night shifts will still benefit from getting daylight during the daylight hours, and darkness at night," Shah says. 

In order to create that illusion of darkness at night, wear blue-light-blocking glasses during work and when you get home, especially if you're going to be looking at your phone, TV, or computer screen.

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Stick to smaller meals at night.

Eating a healthy, balanced meal is much easier said than done late at night. "Cravings and 'munchies' happen more frequently from my experience [with night shifts]," says Eva Selhub, M.D., internal medicine doctor and author of Resilience for Dummies. "And there is a tendency to try to stay awake by eating more carbs, which usually only helps temporarily."

In the nighttime hours, it's best to stick to smaller, more balanced meals that are not going to spike blood sugar levels and will be easy to digest.

Before a shift, Selhub recommends eating healthy fats and proteins, with smaller portions of healthy grains (like quinoa or sweet potatoes). These nutrients help you feel full before staying up all night, while also giving you the energy to get through it.


Eat nourishing food during the daylight. 

If you get hungry during the night shift, Selhub recommends eating the same type of nutrients (healthy fats and proteins, and a small portion of grains). Try to eat at the end of the shift, if possible, she adds. This keeps mealtime closer to daylight hours and gives you time to digest before sleeping.

If you're hungry when you get home, she recommends making a shake with 1 cup of nut milk, 1 tablespoon pea protein powder, and half a cup of berries. "This is what I make as my evening snack, she tells mbg. "I find it helps me sleep better and I don't wake up hungry." Here: four more expert-approved bedtime snacks and five magnesium-rich snacks to support sleep.

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Get adequate sleep whenever you can. 

Based on her own experience working night shifts, holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D., advises overnight workers to do whatever they can to convince their bodies that it's nighttime when they return home from work. 

"Go directly home, do whatever ritual you need (I would always take a shower immediately after an overnight shift), drink some water, draw your blackout shades, and get directly into bed wearing an eye mask," Vora writes in her upcoming book. 

How to transition back to a daytime routine. 

If possible, it's important to transition to a standard light-dark cycle when you have time off of work, Shah says. Of course, that doesn't mean you work a 12-hour shift, then come home and stay awake for another 12 hours. 

Instead, Shah recommends napping for a few hours after your night shift to catch up on sleep, without missing the entire day. Since you'll likely still be tired, you can go to bed early (when the sun sets or shortly after) and hopefully wake with the sun the following morning.

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