How to Manage Shift Work


Medical professional working late

Most people’s sleep issues can be solved by simply prioritizing sleep and making a few changes. Turn off the phone at night, pick a bedtime and stick to it, get more light during the day, eat dinner early (or not at all), stay physically active, don’t let the day’s anxieties and tasks build up and accumulate and weigh on your mind. Basic stuff. Not easy for everyone to follow, but it’s a standard roadmap you know will work if you follow it. 

What if your sleep issues are out of your control? What if you’re a night shift worker who has to stay awake when you’re supposed to sleep and sleep when you’re supposed to be awake? You can’t just switch jobs—you and your family need food, shelter, and money. There’s no easy way to say it: night shift work has no easy solution. 

We evolved with a circadian rhythm that hews to the day-night cycle, and staying up at night and maintaining cognitive alertness when we’re supposed to be sleeping has longterm ramifications to our health and happiness. That’s just a fact.

Night shift work has been linked to a number of health issues:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Breast cancer
  • Obesity

It’s a tough situation, balancing the physiological demands of a diurnal mammal (you) with the demands of a job in direct opposition to the former. What can a shift worker do, save finding a new career path?

Embrace Your Situation

For all intents and purposes, this is your life. It may change down the road, but you are a shift worker for now. Accept it. It’s not ideal, but it will be a lot worse if you go about your days (er, nights) lamenting your situation. Even just looking in the mirror every day and verbally reminding yourself that “I am a shift worker and I’m going to get through this” will help. Fighting or avoiding the reality of a situation, instead of accepting and working with it, will only heap more stress and cortisol on your shoulders (and more fat on your belly).

Much of the link between shift work and obesity can be explained by stress. One study found that among Brazilian shift workers, work-related stress was responsible for the majority of shift work-related obesity. Minimize stressing out about your predicament and you’ll mitigate the issue.

Be Strict About Your Diet

Hew as closely as you can to the Primal eating plan. Don’t give in to vending machine wares and stale day-old donuts lurking in greasy pink boxes leftover from the dayshift. Get even more serious about putting quality fuel in your body than ever before. If that means cooking your own food exclusively to avoid gluten and seed oils, so be it. In your circadian misaligned state, your sensitivity to bad food will be heightened.

Adhere to a Healthy Lifestyle

Eating right and exercising regularly become absolute non-negotiable when you’re doing shift work. Studies show that many of the health conditions linked to night shift work can actually be minimized if you adhere to a healthy lifestyle. The problem is that most night shift workers do not adhere to a healthy lifestyle. Therefore, the circadian misalignment makes unhealthy food harder to resist and daily exercise harder to stick with. You have to rise above your lot in life and be better. Luckily, you are better. Right?

Train Wisely

You are starting from behind. Lifestyle stressors beset you on all sides. Your body’s abilities to recover and perform are dampened, and the last thing you want to do is add another couple heaping tablespoons of stress to the mix. As such, you must choose your workouts wisely. If it were me working night shifts for an extended period of time I’d mostly skip metabolic conditioning. No long CrossFit WODs, no extended Tabata sessions, no half marathons, nothing that spikes cortisol and leaves you breathless and on the verge of puking.

Once-a-week sprints with full recovery? Sure. Long walks? Great. Heavy lifting? Go for it, but keep it heavy and intense and keep the volume low. If you’re doing PBF style bodyweight exercises, consider adding resistance and keeping the reps low.

Two days a week of lifting is perfect; three may be too much. Keep an eye on how you feel. If you stall on the same weight twice, drop the weight or the volume. If you can’t recover in between sprints, make them shorter by ten yards until you can.

As for timing, it’s probably a good idea to train before your shift starts. Train, eat a big meal to recover, and then start your shift. Or, train after you wake up in the “morning.”

Trick Your Body

This is probably the most important strategy. Your body expects light when awake and darkness when asleep. You can’t totally replace sunlight and nighttime, but you can get pretty close.

When you’re at work, keep the lights on. If you work outdoors at night—say, as a cop, a security guard, or in the military—consider light therapy.

Two hours before your shift is up, put on some blue blocking orange goggles to make your body think it’s “night” and prepare for bed. Keep them on when you venture out into the light and don’t remove them until you’re ready for bed.

Keep your bedroom shades drawn, block out any light sources, and keep your bedroom as dark as possible. The idea is to mimic daytime light conditions during your waking hours and nighttime light conditions during your “evening” and sleeping hours to the best of your ability.

Fast During Your Shift

Here’s how the typical shift worker handles food: They snack constantly. They eat junk. Donuts in the break room, vending machine chips. Big massive meals just to keep the boredom at bay and reduce the stress they’re feeling from being up in the middle of the night.

Here’s what happened in a recent study of shift workers:

One group ate normally. They ate their regular food during their shift as they always do. As expected, their glucose tolerance suffered and they had very high blood glucose responses when they ate a meal after their shift. They also suffered a circadian misalignment between their central and peripheral body clocks.

Another group fasted during their shift. They ate no food at all while on night shift. Their glucose tolerance was better and they had normal blood glucose responses when they ate a meal after their shift. There was no circadian misalignment between their central and peripheral body clocks.

As you can see, fasting during the night shift didn’t just improve glucose tolerance. It also improved circadian alignment, which may have a beneficial or protective effect on many of the physiological systems night shift normally disrupts.

Go Low-Carb During Your Shift

If you have to eat during your shift, go low-carb or keto. Your glucose tolerance is going to be poor no matter what you do—you can’t get around the circadian disruption of glucose tolerance—so you’d better just reduce the amount of exogenous glucose in your diet. Think of yourself like a type 2 diabetic who can’t handle glucose during your shift, and eat accordingly.

Use Melatonin

Melatonin has been shown to improve shift workers’ sleep and wakefulness patterns.

In one study, compared to placebo and no treatment at all, 5 mg melatonin taken at “desired bedtime” improved the sleep and alertness of cops working a night shift. They got better sleep when they wanted it and felt more alert at night while on the beat.

A later study had similar findings. Increasing dosages of melatonin (up to 3 mg) in patients undergoing simulated late shift work was actually able to shift their circadian phases (as evidenced by changes in body temperature and melatonin secretion). Sleep and alertness (at the right times) also improved. They took fewer naps.

If I were taking melatonin to deal with a night shift, I would take it as soon as I got off work to help me prepare for sleep at home. The quicker you can take it after your shift and get to sleep, the more aligned you’ll be.

Take at least 3 mg melatonin at your desired bedtime, and be consistent with it.

Don’t Go Crazy on Coffee and Embrace Black Tea

Don’t rely on coffee, especially if you display the hallmarks of cortisol problems: belly fat accumulation and poor performance in the gym. Or, at least cut way back. Consider going for black tea instead, which has been shown to normalize cortisol. If you keep drinking coffee (let’s face it, it’s delicious), try not to rely on it. Have a cup at the start of your shift – since it’s “morning” for you – but no more.

Ultimately, what the human animal does best is adapt, often to some pretty horrible conditions. Consider how many people go about their days without apparent problems and live long lives eating the modern processed diet. Consider the amount of unimaginable cruelty, war, genocide, and famine occurring today and throughout all history, and still people live on. So you can handle shift work. Maybe not for the rest of your life, maybe not for ten years without serious ramifications to your health and quality of life, but you can handle shift work now and in the near future. Just don’t get complacent. Start, today, working toward the goal of getting off shift work, because no amount of supplementation, smart training, diet perfection, and artificial light trickery will make up for a lifestyle that contradicts your basic physiology.

Any shift workers in here? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t? Let us know in the comment section!

Primal Kitchen Ranch

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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