As a health enthusiast, assessing the quality, duration and consistency of your sleep pattern is an absolute MUST if you want to improve lifestyle results and overall quality of life.
Poor sleep, or more specifically, circadian alignment can contribute to many different health risks due to its impact on both the physiology of the individual and the lifestyle patterns they undertake as a consequence of irregular sleep habits.
In terms of lifestyle, shift workers and others with irregular sleep patterns may find less time to exercise regularly and may be more prone to eat a diet consisting of less healthy foods. These individuals also are more prone to social isolation, since their jobs may cut them off from family and friends.
The more significant problem with poor sleep hygiene has to do with biology. The body operates on a 24-hour cycle, or circadian rhythm, governed by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that serves as both the ‘master clock’ and regulator of peripheral clocks, located in various organs around the body to ensure the body maintains alignment with the natural changes in daylight and darkness. It is this rhythm that tells us to wake when it is light and rest when it is dark and supports the many hormonal and physiological functions that need to occur in order to support the body throughout.
This disruption of the natural circadian cycle affects how the body functions and interferes with the natural release of hormones and other processes within the body, leading to potential problems of the cardiovascular system, metabolism, digestion, immune system, mental health and even fertility and pregnancy.
So given the importance of not only sleep but alignment with the natural 24-hour light/dark cycle, what does this mean for those who find it difficult to change their sleep patterns due to shift-work?
In this scenario, much of the advice given is unrealistic and impossible to implement with shift-workers, leaving many professionals feeling like they are unable to tackle any issues surrounding sleep. There comes a point where sleep hygiene must be addressed, particularly as the health risks associated with prolonged shift work are actually quite alarming.
In shift workers, research shows a 30-40% increase in risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and interestingly, the longer you do shift work, the higher your waist circumference and risk of obesity. In fact, 4 days of disrupted sleep due to shift work can push your physiology into a pre-diabetic state and one night sleep under 4 hours can reduce immune function by 70%. Shift work is also correlated to inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, lower energy levels and mental health conditions such as depression.
So, aside from giving up their jobs, what else can we do as professionals, colleagues, friends, and family to support those who work shifts? We asked chrono-expert and ShaeWellness lead educator, Dr. Cam McDonald to share his top tips.
- Re-establish normal patterns of sleeping, eating and exercise as soon as possible after night shifts are over
The body likes to follow predictable patterns in alignment with the 24-hour circadian rhythm. The more you mismatch daily lifestyle habits with this rhythm, the more stress it creates on the body. Once a period of working shifts is complete, quickly establishing a routine of eating, working out and sleeping in alignment with the natural light-dark cycle should be of highest priority.
- During shifts, minimize food intake throughout the evening, focus on low/non-caloric fluids and aim to have all meals through the daylight hours. Try to keep your meal timings on a consistent pattern.
Much of the metabolic risk of shift-work comes from the irregularity in meal timings and quality of food. Put simply, the body likes to keep processes on a consistent rhythm and is not designed to digest large meals in the middle of the night.
Here you can support your body by establishing a consistent pattern around meal times each day, and ensuring easy to digest, low calorie meals such as soups or broths are consume during the night, whilst keeping the consumption of main meals to the daylight hours.
- Aim to use light movement, warm drinks, healthy crunchy snacks as ways of staying awake to reduce caffeine consumption as much as possible overnight.
Many shift workers use caffeine to give them more energy during the night. As previously mentioned, the body should be resting during this time and is already under a level of stress from being awake and at work. Using caffeine to get through the shift will only add more fuel to the fire through the release of stress hormones. It can be helpful to find alternative ways to support yourself during the shift that do not involve the use of caffeine or other stimulants.
- Support ‘morning sleep hygiene’
Improving overall sleep quality, regardless of the time you go to bed, will still be one of the most impactful things you can do to reduce the negative effects of shift-work. Here are some additional tips to support sleep hygiene.
- Create a ‘morning’ bedtime routine to prep the body for sleep
- Have a hot bath, practice meditation, breathing techniques, or stretch to calming music
- Use block out blinds or curtains in the bedroom with dark shades or a sleep mask
- Limit the use of electronics before falling asleep
- Wear blue light blocking glasses during work, on the way home from work and around the house before bedtime
- Consider using a white noise machine to block out any daytime noise that may affect the quality of your sleep
Curious to learn more about Wellbeing Program for Shift Workers, or health impacts of the typical 9 to 5 work day? Book a no-stress 15mins Pulse Check call with one of our friendly Team to find out what ShaeWellness can offer you and your team.
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As a health enthusiast, assessing the quality, duration and consistency of your sleep pattern is an absolute MUST if you want to improve lifestyle results and overall quality of life. Poor sleep, or more specifically,…