How to stay awake on night shift

By Dr Pushpa Chandra

Aug 09

Are you falling asleep during a work shift and suffering from insomnia during the day? Staying awake at night and trying to sleep during the day goes against evolution, adversely affecting all biological functions as they continually try to adjust. We have naturally evolved to rest, heal and restore our bodies while we sleep at night, and breaking that pattern comes with a cost.

As a nurse who spent 27 years working shifts, I can attest to the fact that we never ‘get used to’ working at night and disrupting our natural circadian rhythms. Fatigue, daytime sleepiness, insomnia, digestive disorders, irritability, depression, anxiety, poor memory, reduced mental focus, and overall reduced cognitive impairment are unavoidable. All shift workers need to clearly understand that our circadian clock is entrained by light and is auto-regulated at a molecular level. Shift work is here to stay, so let's be ‘shift smart’.

Staying awake on night shift: 9 smart moves

1) Let food be your medicine. Discipline yourself and remember that healthy, nutritious food is all the more essential when your body is under stress from working shifts. Don't get seduced by snacks in vending machines. Cook healthy food on your days off and take home-cooked meals to work. Make sure you include plenty of protein! It’s an indispensible nutrient and a source of vital amino acids required for all biological processes.

On #nightshift don't get seduced by snacks in vending machines

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2) Eat tyrosine-rich food. Jump-start the brain with seafood, soy, organic grass-fed meats, eggs and organic yoghurt. They are all rich in tyrosine, which helps to perk up your brain.

3) Go nuts! Raw Brazil nuts are high in selenium—a potent mineral that detoxifies your system and is key to cancer prevention. Pumpkin, chia and sunflower seeds, as well as pistachios, are also excellent nutrient-dense foods. Avoid peanuts as they are especially susceptible to a mold that produces a mycotoxin called aflatoxin (a carcinogen that has been shown to cause liver cancer in rats and, presumably, in humans).

4) Be berry smart. Blueberries increase concentration and memory by increasing blood flow to the brain. Eat a handful every day—in yogurt, with some nuts or in a protein smoothie.

On #nightshift Blueberries increase concentration and memory by increasing blood flow to the brain

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5) Avoid eating too much, especially carb-rich food, and getting a ‘food coma’. Less is more, when it comes to the size of your meal. Small, frequent meals sustain energy and reduce weight gain. Over-eating and consuming too many carbs make you susceptible to hyperglycemia and an insulin surge, which can lead to diabetes.

6) Avoid sugar. Sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine! It provides a short boost of energy, followed by a crash, causing excessive fatigue, irritability and a craving for another quick fix. Sugar also causes your insulin to spike, which causes your body to retain more adipose (fat) tissue. In other words, sugar makes you fat!

7) Glow with low-glycemic-index foods. Organic apples, grapefruit, humous, chickpeas, legumes, lentils, oranges, steel-cut oatmeal and seaweed are all low-glycemic foods, which raise your blood sugar much more slowly than those that are high on the index. (Note that carrots are a high-glycemic food, especially when cooked.)

8) Avoid caffeine. Everybody knows that caffeine makes you more alert and clearheaded, right? It may do so temporarily, but a cup of coffee only gives you a wake-up jolt because it triggers a stress response. Caffeine sends your adrenal glands into overdrive, pumping out a stress hormone that generates a temporary feeling of alertness, followed by exhaustion and decreased focus. The sleep-disrupting effects of caffeine may occur up to 8 hours after consumption.

On #nightshift coffee is one of the worst ways to try to stay awake and alert

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9) Drink more water. Did you know that the Earth and the human body (including the brain) are both 70% water? Water is the only substance on Earth that naturally occurs in three different forms: liquid, solid (ice) and gas (vapor). It is our most abundant and vital medicine, required in ample amounts by every cell of the body. Yet its importance is often overlooked, and most people are chronically dehydrated without realizing it. Not drinking enough water can create brain fog, lightheadedness, fatigue, irritability, digestive problems and many other issues. Staying properly hydrated is vital to good health and optimal functioning, and most adults require one or two liters of pure water a day.

While there is no way to fundamentally change your biology, if you work shifts, there are many ways to support your health, naturally sustain your energy, and promote more restorative sleep. Being mindful of self-care and taking these simple, practical measures will enhance your energy, efficiency and performance at home, at work and in life.

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About the Author

Dr. Pushpa Chandra is a Vancouver based Naturopathic Physician with an integrative approach to healthcare. Her background includes over 27 years of acute care hospital experience as a registered nurse and 22 years at BC Children's Hospital in critical care, working with the province's sickest children. Her special interests include research in circadian rhythm disruption, sports medicine and pediatrics. As a competitive sports enthusiast, Dr Pushpa completed ultramarathons and marathons in all 7 continents including North Pole, Antarctica and Mt Everest. As a shift worker she has been using the ingredients of AWAKE and ASLEEP to boost her performance, endurance and overall health.

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