I’ve been working the better part of 7 years of nights. Love them or hate them, they are often a part of nursing (which is my perspective) and many other professions. Truth be told, I used to have a seriously hard time with staying awake during the shifts. I also had a hard time with coming off of nights, having eaten a good bit of junk and feeling bloated and gross. When I switched to a whole foods plant based diet, things at work also shifted and I noticed a lot more mental clarity and an easier time staying awake even into those wee hours. Of course, sleeping properly is crucial to working smartly and staying awake but these are my other Top 10 Ways to Stay Healthy When Working Nights (and awake!). Most are dietary with background studies (and personal trials) to back them up. Most take some preparation but with a little work, you can feel better on nights and coming off.
- Bring Your Own Food- Because most of my other points rely on this idea (unless your unit carries its own turmeric…typically hospitals are not in the business of keeping people well). Snack machines do sometimes carry nuts and things but most foods from the snack machine lack nutrient dense foods and have only sugary, super salty or fatty processed foods. Again because health care is not designed for optimum health (weird I know) and just a state of existence with most of our sick and elderly, their menu caters to this. Often times I have found many sugary treats, overly processed foods and of course large quantities of meat at my patient’s bedsides along with dairy and even sandwich meat (a WHO recognized carcinogenic) all of which is served by the kitchen at hospitals. Save yourself fat, sugar and extra processing by bringing your own food.
- Pick Easy Healthy Snacks that You Actually Like- If you don’t like kale, don’t bring kale. You’ll be more likely to eat the other foods mentioned above or extra sweets found in the staff room if you don’t curb your own hunger and cravings with things that are good for you. Some of my go to foods are air popped popcorn with nutritional yeast, microwavable oatmeal with cinnamon, hemp hearts, chia seeds and walnuts, fruit both dried and fresh, and smoothies. I don’t typically take strong smelling foods because they make me nauseated on night shift. If you like the food, you’ll eat the food. So choose things you like but that are also healthy and full of nutrients.
- Avoid the Sweets- If you have gone through nursing school or heck even eaten a chocolate bar, you know that there is a sugar high followed by a low. Bring fruit instead, often diets tell you to avoid fruit because of the high sugar content, but studies have shown that the body processes fruit sugar in an entirely different way than the man made sugar. It might give you a bit of a buzz to get through a part of the shift but come 3 AM, you will regret it. Not to mention that intake of sugar comes with the risks of diabetes, cancer and obesity. Especially if its paired with siting for longer periods of time which I often find happens on night shifts. And that leads me to my next point.
- Walk the Halls- When I am working and not on break, I try to get up every 20 minutes or so and walk up and down our halls a few times. Gets the blood moving again, you need to check your patients anyway and keeps you awake. When I’m on break, I occasionally run some stairs or do a short workout video from youtube in our staff room. These are things that do not take a ton of energy but keeps you fit and active during your shift. You’ll find you sleep better during the day and stay awake better during the night. I have also found that rigorous exercise during my night shift makes me more tired later on in the shift. Find what works for you and stick to it. Yup you might look funny but you’ll also be an encouragement for the others you work with and best of all, your patients.
- Workout- Keep making time to work out either before your shift or after. I know getting off of 12 hours shifts is hard and I used to be so tired that I would wake up in my bed and not even remember driving home. Working out and keeping your fitness schedule is so important to your sleep and maintaining weight and muscle. I know it’s hard to do but it will be worth it. I don’t plan for intense workouts while I work nights because working nights is so hard on the body to begin with. If you run, then run but maybe don’t make your night shifts your long run days.
- Eat Protein- This one has been huge for me right now as I am working nights in my third trimester when eating extra protein is hugely important. When I say eat a protein though, I don’t mean beef jerky or other processed stuff. Eat a quality protein such as nuts, edamame beans, nut butter on a fruit, Tempeh, flax, spirulina etc. Proteins that will nourish your body rather than decay it. I try to have a little at every snack…so about every 2 hours or so depending on how I feel. Some night shifts I can’t stop eating, others I have to focus to eat enough.
- Drink Water- Since our brains are made up of almost 75% water, often times when we are dehydrated, we become tired and irritable. During the day I was always super good at drinking enough water but nights were a whole other story. I had trained my habits during the day to drink water every so often to keep well hydrated but it took some intention to drink enough on night shift. When I found that I did drink enough, I managed nights much easier. For me, I started with a combination of walking every 20 minutes and drinking a few gulps of water. Eventually both became habit and I don’t need to think much about them anymore. I also drink other things to keep well hydrated such as Kombucha and my next point
- Drink Green Tea- Not only will it give you a gentle bit of caffeine every couple of hours but studies have shown that green tea will help to keep the endothelium (of veins) functioning well. Meaning that if you are drinking your green tea and have to sit for a while, your veins still function much better to return the blood to your heart. This means less swelling with feet and ankles. Green tea as most people know has other good health properties such as antioxidants. Drink it hot or cold, it keeps you hydrated and peppy through the night.
- Turmeric- This is again something that most people know that turmeric is good for you but aren’t quite sure why. Turmeric is a yellow spice commonly found in Middle Eastern dishes. It guards you against 7 different types of human cancer cells and is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Not only this but Turmeric has shown that like green tea, it aids in the endothelium of veins giving you a little extra protection from the times you do have to sit for a while (charting anyone?) The recommended daily intake is a ¼ tsp. That’s not a lot and you can’t even taste it if you throw it into a smoothie or sprinkle over a salad. It’s not expensive in spice form and you get great benefits from such a tiny habit.
- Try to Make at Least One Meal a Salad- Now this sounds like funny advise but there are nights when my diet is perfectly green either. There are days when I have to swing by the grocery store on my way because I just haven’t had time to prepare much although I am more organized these days and it doesn’t happen as often. On those days, even when a vegan pizza is my meal, I try for at least one meal to be a salad. When you are hungry, your body craves nutrients not calories. A salad that includes a healthy fat such as nuts or avocado (you get more nutrients by adding a fat!) provides a great deal of those nutrients. When you are thinking to prepare food for night shift, a quick list that I try to stick to is Dr. Gregor’s Daily Dozen found in his amazing and life altering book “How Not to Die” Here is the list.
You can be healthier even when working nights and I encourage it. I have seen extremely unhealthy nurses attempting to care for patients but gasping for breath as they head out for the next cigarette. As front line staff, let’s set a great example for our patients so we don’t see them as often. Challenge coworkers and encourage healthy choices and then follow them! People learn best by example.