Very few people enjoy night shifts and even those of us who claim to be 'night owls' will have difficulty actually becoming nocturnal and working nights. At the same time despite some claims to the contrary night shifts are not actually very good for us and they can upset our bodies in a number of ways.
Still someone's got to do it, and often the difficult lifestyle changes are reflected in the pay. Here then we will look at how to go about adjusting to night shifts and what the health considerations are.
What Night Shifts Do to Your Body
So, night shifts are bad for your body. The question is though, how and why? Well the reason is simply that it upsets are normal biological clock which relies on two factors: external zeitgebers (literally meaning 'time givers') and internal pacemakers. These combined allow our body to know what time it is and whether we should be awake or asleep and it works best if they are synchronized. In other words, if you wake up and the sun is coming up, then this will switch off the parts of the brain that produce melatonin and you will find it much easier to rise bright and early. However if it's still pitch black outside as you are rising then you will still be full of sleep inducing melatonin and it will be much harder to get up. If you're getting up at four in the morning then your body will be at its coldest point and you will feel shivery and lethargic as you wake. Everything from social cues to the sounds of birds helps our body to 'set' its internal pacemakers to work in time with the outside world and when these are off-kilter we understandably feel tired and groggy which is why jet-lag is such an unpleasant feeling.
Some theories as to why we sleep look at it from an evolutionary perspective and have suggested that we sleep in the dark because it keeps us safely hidden from predators. If you are to accept this hypothesis, then that would mean that you were going against what your body is designed to do when you wake at night and sleep during the day and this is precisely what it will feel like.
On top of this though even if you were able to ignore all the cues telling your body to go back to bed, when you walk around at night there would still be issues with your body clock and that's because most of us will want to switch back to a day shift during the weekend so that we can socialize and watch television – there's just not that much to do during the night on weekends. This then means that you'll end up at some point completely changing your body clock in order to be awake on Saturday and somewhere that will mean a lot of sleep missed and you'll be very tired (as will your immune system) as a result.
So no matter what you've heard night shifts are very hard on your body, the question is – what can you do about it?
Adapting to Night Shifts
Be Consistent in Developing a Routine
The first trick is to be as consistent as you possibly can. If you have a set rotor for the week then make sure that you set a time to wake up every day and a time to go to bed every day. Your body loves patterns you see and it's had its whole life to adapt to the pattern of waking at 7 and going to bed at 11 (or whatever your normal habit is). Now it's time to teach it a new habit so that it starts to learn new cues for going to bed and so that your cycle is permanently shifted. Otherwise if you keep changing things around your body will not be able to 'lock on' to a new pattern and your circadian rhythm will constantly be in disarray. If you have the option of choosing which nights you work and sticking to them, then you should make sure that you take it.
Another way to give your body new cues that it can use to regulate itself is to not go near your bed except for to sleep in. If at all possible then avoid your bedroom completely except for when you're sleeping and this will then mean that when you get into your bed your brain says 'bed time' and starts preparing you for sleep. If you can't avoid the whole room, then get curtains for around your bed to section it off.
It sounds a bit silly, but there is a lot of value in acting as though nothing unusual is going on and sleeping behaving as though it were any other day. In other words don't eat breakfast in the mornings before bed just because everyone else is as that will only confuse your body further (and that would mean you had to eat cooked meals in the morning... ). In other words do everything that you would normally do except 12 hours behind.
Treat Sleep as Golden
Sleep is highly important for your health, happiness and well-being. Though we all know this to some extent however, this becomes truer than ever when you're on your night shift so make sure that you treat your sleep as sacred and do anything you can to protect it. Make sure that you always get 6-8 hours and no more or less, and that you don't let anything disturb your pattern.
Kick Bad Habits
There are certain bad habits that can be bad for your ability to sleep – for instance drinking caffeine before bed, drinking alcohol before bed, eating a poor diet etc. You are working at a disadvantage now that you are sleeping at the wrong time of day so you need to make sure that you do everything else by the book. Be strict with yourself and give up anything that will make this harder rather than easier.
Alter Your Zeitgebers
The zeitgebers are the time-givers that normally regulate your circadian rhythm – the sun, the noises, the temperature – and it's your job to make sure that you try to change these things so that it feels more natural to go to bed during the day and rise at night. One of the very best ways you can do this is by using a 'daylight lamp'. These are lights that give off a brighter light more akin to that of the sun and that come on gradually again just like the sun at preset times. You can use a daylight lamp then and program it to simulate a rising sun just as you have to get up for work. The room will get gradually brighter and this will fill you with all the right chemicals and hormones and help you to leap out of bed.
If you want to take this further then you can also have an alarm play a CD at that same time and this could be something like the tweeting of birds and other noises that we associate with waking up in the morning. Interestingly the reason that birds rise so earlier is that they have thinner skulls meaning that more light gets into their brain. This then causes them to sing and that in turn has affected our evolution so that we start to wake at that time too.
The way you set your heating can also help to make it easier for you to rise at the right times. If normally the heating is on cold at night and on warm during the day it's time for you to alter that so that the room feels cold when you need to go to sleep (you can huddle under the duvet) and warm when you're getting up. This will again help your body clock to adjust.
When you go outside it will be hard to trick yourself into thinking that it's day time, but there are other things you can do like listening to loud music which we normally only do during the day, and talking to friends who are on the same shift on the phone or heading into work with them. Not only will the camaraderie make it more bearable, but the social stimulation is something else that our body uses as a cue to know what time it is. Another way to limit the harsh impact of heading outside is to live near work if possible so that your time spent in a dark environment is minimal – then make sure it's light and lively at work when you get in.
Another one for when you're going to bed is to drink a glass of warm milk. This causes our body to produce melatonin and that will help to trigger some of the changes we associate with going to sleep. Having a hot shower will work too as this causes the release of growth hormone which is also normally released at night.
Create a Temple
There must be nothing in your room that can make it harder than necessary to go to sleep and in a perfect world you would take away all external cues. You need to make sure you have the most comfortable bed possible, then at the same time you need to shut out all light and sound. The best way to do this is to get thick double glazed windows, choose the room in the back of your house for your bedroom, and to buy thick heavy curtains to shut out noise and sound. If the curtains aren't enough then you should invest in shutters too, and likewise you want a heavy door for the room if there are other people at home. Turn all clocks and VCRs away or unplug them as they create light too. Invest in curtains for around your bed as a separate layer of darkness and if necessary invest in an eye mask and earplugs.
Get Help From Your Friends
Perhaps the hardest part of all this will be friends and family running around the house during the day, wanting your attention and calling you up to go out. They all know that you work night shifts but they probably aren't aware of just how important it is that you stick rigidly to your routine. You need to really ram home the idea that you can't get up during certain hours and let them know your time table. Turn your mobile phone off before you go to sleep and set the answer machine message to one that reminds people as to just why you can't come to the phone.