6 Ways to Make Working the Night Shift Less Hazardous to Your Health

A lack of sleep and disruption to your biological clock can have harmful effects.

Video: Common Sleeping Problems
  • Nap before you work. Daytime workers get up and go to work, then go home and spend another several hours up and about before heading to bed. But night-shift workers may head to bed immediately after getting home from work in the early morning. Then, because it's tough to sleep through the day, they'll get up and be awake for several hours before heading back to work—and so they may be driving home from work in the early morning, after they've been up for a very long time and when the circadian clock is giving its strongest signal for sleep, says Klerman. To ameliorate this, splitting sleep can help, she says. If you sleep five or more hours after getting home in the morning and then again for a few more hours before going back to work, you've gotten in something closer to eight hours and at least are less likely to be dangerously exhausted when you're driving home from work.
    • Don't use caffeine. Many of us toss back coffee to keep up energy at work. Not a good idea, says Julie Carrier, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal. She led a small lab study, the results of which were published in November, in which people were deprived of sleep, then allowed to sleep three hours after being given either a caffeine pill or a placebo. Not surprisingly, the caffeine group had poor sleep quality, and the effect was even stronger in people over 40. For most people on a reverse schedule, drinking even three hours before hitting the sack decreases the deepest stages of sleep that are crucial for overriding the circadian signal to be awake during the day, says Carrier. It's tempting for night workers to use caffeine at the end of their shifts because it's when they're most sluggish, but that's only likely to continue to chip away at sleep quality.
      • Don't take melatonin. Stevens says it's not a great idea unless specifically recommended by a physician. While you'd think it would be helpful, it can actually throw a wrench into the smooth functioning of the circadian system and worsen the disruption to your biological clock. Klerman agrees with that advice, primarily because melatonin supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. She has studied a compound that mimics the effects of melatonin and could be potentially useful in quieting or shifting the circadian clock so you can sleep, so stay tuned.
        • Change your lights. You want the period when you're sleeping—whether you're a night-shift or a daytime worker—to be as dark as possible. Consider blackout curtains or anything else that reduces light. Stevens says that no matter our shift, we may want to consider installing a low-wattage red bulb in the bathroom so that when we get up in the middle of our sleep cycle, it isn't disturbed by the shock of bright lights. There's research into how light—of different wavelengths, intensity, timing, and duration—might be deployed to help shift workers, but no prescription yet, says Stevens.
          • Eat a healthful diet. It's possible that there's some type of eating schedule that will minimize the negative impact on the body of eating mostly at night, says Van Cauter, but as of now she knows of no such diet that's been demonstrated to work. No matter your work schedule, however, it certainly cannot hurt to follow a balanced, nutritious diet and to avoid loading up on processed carbs at night.
          • [Check out 4 diets that are really good for your health.]