Are you a shift worker? If so, you probably know the struggles of meal timing, hinger spikes (and falls!) and the energy dips that come with overnights, long shifts, and an overall wonky schedule. Nutrition for shift workers can be tricky. Don't worry, we're here to help.
When it comes to overall health and nutrition, here are some key challenges that working in shifts can present.
- Difficulty planning meals and snacks
- Limited time to eat or drink during shifts
- Easy access to breakroom snacks and calorically dense foods with low nutritional value
- Trouble navigating the transition from work days to days off
- Disrupted sleep patterns
If you've never done shift work, think about it like a sort of jet lag that you might experience after international travel...but on a regular basis! If you are a shift worker or have been in the past, you know what we mean.
Let's break down some of the ways this can impact your body before we dig into some nutritional tips and tricks for shift workers.
Shift Work and Horomones
When you're going to be din the sunlight and staying awake at night, natural circadian rhythm is thrown off. Then, throw in the general lack of sleep seen during longer shifts and you've got yourself the recipe for some potentially unhappy horomones.
Sleep deprivation and disruption to the circadian rhythm can have an impact on two key horomones, melatonin and cortisol. Let's look at them...
- Melatonin is produced in your brain as a response to darkness. So when you are exposed to light at tnight or when youa re sleeping when your brain would not typically produce melatonin, you might not produce as much.
- Cortisol is a stress horomone and when working efficiently, it can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help to reduce inflammation and assist in forming new memories. Unfortunately, working in shifts can cause the body to produce too much cortisol, which can have negative impacts. Too much cortisol put the body in a "fight or flight" state much of the time.
Hunger and Horomones
Many people who work shifts will find themselves constantly hungry, not satiated by the meals they're eating and drawn into foods that are calorically dense, but provide very little nutritional value.
Lack of regular, restful sleep that often comes as a product of shift work impacts two more horomones: Ghrelin and Leptin
- Ghrelin is known as the "hunger horomone" because it stimulates our appetite and helps you to feel hungry. Think "stomach grumble ghrelin" and it will be easy to remember! Eating when hugner is non-existent isn't fun or enjoyable, so you need some ghrelin in your body. Those who do shift work can somtimes produce too much grelin, which can lead to never feeling full or satiated and therefore, overeating.
- Leptin is produced by fat cells and helps regulate fat storage, appetite and metabolism. When you are not getting enough sleep--quality OR quantity--the body produces less letpin. Leptin helps you to feel full and with less of it you feel more hungry, more often.
Horomones play a really important role in your body. As we've mentioned, the sleep cycles and routines that often come along with shift work can have an impact on those horomones and throw them out of whack.
What can you do?
All of this information can sound really daunting and may be daunting. IF you're a shift worker you may be thinking, "How can I beat this and continue to prioritize my health, nutrition and fitness goals!?"
As a shift worker, it can be challenging to maintain a schedule in ALL areas of life. If you let it, shift work can have control over sleep, schedule, body functioning and so much more.
We are here to be the bearer of GOOD news and tell you that there are many things that you can be doing and focusing on to prioritize you and feel your best!
Prioritizing health and working towards specific fitness and nutrition goals can be hard. In fact, working towards any goal can be challenging! Every individual will face challenges on their way to their goals and as a shift worker, you likely will have additional ones, especially when it comes to nutrition. One of the best thigns you can do is be prepared ahead of time with your own snacks and meals that fit within your nutrition plan!
- Pack protein which will help stabilize your blood sugar levels and give you a steady supply of energy during your shifts. Examples: greek yogurt, protein powder, jerky, protein bars, or hard-boiled eggs.
- Incorporate high fiber and high volume foods. Bringing pre-cut fruits and veggies and pair them with lean protein to keep you feeling full and satiated. This will keep energy high and hunger under control throughout your shift. Examples: baby carrots, mini peppers, cherry tomatoes, precooked or raw broccoli/cauliflower, celery, cucumber. Pair with an example from above!
- Focusing on balancing out your meals (when you can!). Aiming to have protein, carbs and fat in every meal and snack. Examples: hard boiled eggs and fruit, a wrap with some deli meat, cheese and veggies, oatmeal and chia seeds or nut butter or some schredded chicken, rice, avocade and your favorite veggies.
- Grab a smoothie! When you are in a pinch or short on time, smoothies can be a great option. Some go-to smoothie ingredients are: frozen fruit, protein powder, greek yogurt, chia seeds, nuts and spinach or kale!
Aim for a Regular Meal Schedule As Much As Possible
Although shift work can be very disruptive to your schedule, you can still develop a regular meal schedule for work days and off days too!
- Adjust your schedule. During a typical day when you are sleeping at night, you might have meals at 7am, 10am, 1pm, 4pm, and 7pm. With shift work, just shift this schedule! If you wake up at 6pm and start work at 9pm you might aim for meals at: 7pm, 11pm, 3am and 7 or 8 am prior to heading to bed. If you are able to follow this schedule on a regular basis, your body and horomones will likely adjust.
- Notice Patterns. If there are times where you usually feel a bit off, nauseous or when eating is challenging, you can plan accordingly. Perhaps you get a good chunk of your. macros in prior and use that time to focus on your water intake.
Make Hydration (and Especially Water!) a Priority
When you are working late night shifts or multiple days at a time, it can be easy to fall into the trap of consuming multiple caffeinated beverages, not drinking much water or a combination of both. Staying hydrated not only keep you feeling better and more alert, but being mindful of how much cafeeine you drink and when you drink it can also hlep improve your sleep.
- Keep in mind that coffee, caffeinated teas and energy drinks are okay to have, but we recommend consuming them as you might on a "regular" day. If possible limit caffeine to the first half of YOUR "day" (as in, the time you're awake!) so it doesn't impact sleep.
- If necessary, set a time on your phone, fitbit or smart watch to help remind you to drink water. Having a water bottle with a straw attachment can make it even easier to sip throughout the day!
- If drinking during your shift is a challenge, find those opportunities in your day when you can prioritize your hydration. This could be aiming for a chunk first think when you wake up, sipping on a bottle on your dribe to work and drinking a bottle during your workout...as long as it isn't shortly before bed!
- If flavored seltzers or flavored water are your jam, those can be gret options too.
Dial in Sleep Routine
Getting high quality zzz's might take a bit more time and effort as a shift worker, but it can be done and there are many things that are within your control. When it comes to sleep some things that we have found to be helpful are:
- If possible, don't get a workout in and then try to go straight to bed. Even just an hour or so to eat and wind down after a workout before bed can help.
- Have a bedtime routine, even if it's during the day. This might involve usual routines like brushing your teeth, takin ga shower or washing your face, reading a book, journaling or a mindfulness/meditation activity. If you don't currently have a routine prior to going to bed, this can be a great time to create one!
- Make sure that your environment is optimal for sleep. For most people, this means keeping the room dark and cool. Black out shades, an eye mask and a fan are some easy ways to do this--especially if you're trying to sleep during the day.
- Block out any noise that might make it hard to fall asleep or wake you up from sleep. Complete silence through earplugs can work for some, while others might prefer a fan or a white noise machine.
- If aiming for 8 straight hours of sleep doesn't seem to be working for you, that is okay. If your schedule allows, sleeping for a few hours, having a few hours of wake time around the house and then going back to sleep is better than nothing.
Define Success in a Way That Works and Fits For YOU
Many of us (okay, pretty much all of us!) feel the need to be "perfect" with our nutrition on work days and off days. This often leads to falling into that "all or nothing" trap and can make us feel like we are not successful when things don't go as planned.
AT CNU Fit, we know that being perfect isn't realistic and puts unnecessary pressure and stress on ourselves. We recommend:
- Start with simple goals. If you have a hard time eating at all during your shift, perhaps your only goal is to eat at least one meal or snack and then build from there.
- Let the times when things don't go as planned roll off your back. Maybe you have a couple bites of the cookies that are in the breakroom. This happens sometimes, but it doesn't mean that the rest of your day is a complete wash. Think about it like getting a flat tire. If you pull over a flat, it doesn't make sense to slice the other three, right? Get right back to your usual routine at that next meal or snack and finish the day strong!
- Remind yourself that you don't have to do everything at once. Pick ONE thing to start with (ex. meal planning, prioritizing sleep, dialing in water intake), repeat it until it is a habit and then build from there. If you focus on super small improvements each day, you will be amazed at how that can add up over the course of a month, a year, and longer.
At CNU Fit, we have worked with hundreds of shift workers to help them navigate their unique challenges and find the best plan for them. Nutrition is not a "one size fits all" kind of thing and CNU Fit coaches are here to help you or the shift worker in your life find what works best for YOU.