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Ten Tips on Surviving the Night Shift

Dr. Obi Igbokwe

Last Updated: Monday, May 20, 2013
Doing a night shift can be quite hard, especially to those not used to it. Here are ten tips that could help you make it through the night.

Whether you’re new to nursing and worried about how you’ll handle your first time on the night shift or you’ve been working the night shift for awhile and suffering the consequences, you may need help dealing with the challenges of working when most other people are asleep. It’s a changeable, interesting time to work – some nights it seems as if nothing’s going on, the next night could have a number of patients who need ‘round-the-clock care.

Usually, there are less support staff available to back up night-shift nurses, so they have to keep their skills sharp – and that means staying confident, healthy and alert so that they can help others, something that’s not always easy when your entire waking, sleeping, living and working schedule is out of sync with just about everyone else.

Here are some tips on surviving the night shift:

1. Rotate forward, not back. Our bodies’ circadian rhythm – the 24-hour, biological cycle that we all go through each day – can better adapt to forward changes in sleep patterns that backward changes. So to adapt better to your changing shifts, it’s best if you go from a morning shift to an afternoon shift, then from afternoons to nights, with 48 hours between rotations. If you’re not going to be working nights for a long period – say, several weeks or months – then it’s actually best to work no more than three night shifts in a row, otherwise you’ll suffer hormonal disruptions that could make you feel fatigued and irritable.

2. Do everything you can to get decent sleep. Working nights can keep you from getting enough rest, and that can lead to poor coordination, shortened attention and fatigue. So to combat that, sleep as soon as you get home from your shift before your brain and body decide that you’re going to keep going (because, after all, it’s a new day). Simulate night-time sleeping conditions as much as possible by making your room dark, either in a very quiet room with the door shut or with earplugs or a white-noise machine to block sounds. And avoid caffeine for there or four hours before you go to sleep.

3. Make sure your friends and family know about your new schedule, and that they respect it. Ask them only to call you during the hours you know you’ll be awake, and remind them that you need to get enough sleep to do your job.

4. If you have trouble sleeping, eat a banana or some turkey, or drink a glass of milk before going to bed. These foods contain the amino acid L-Tryptophan, which encourages the production of serotonin, a sleep-inducing brain chemical. Another gentle, natural sleep aid is the herb valerian, available as capsules or a tincture at health food store. Natural sleep aids are preferable to pharmaceuticals, although if you continue having trouble getting to sleep you should talk to your doctor/

5. Even if you can’t sleep, lay down and rest. Sleep is best, of course, but just getting some quiet time at rest will help restore your energy reserves.

6. Working the night shift often means eating meals at night, when your body’s used to slowing down without having to work at digestion. Eating at irregular hours and changing the schedule of your meals can have some unpleasant effects on your body, like diarrhea, gastritis, nausea or weight gain. Try to eat your meals at the same time each day, and don’t eat at the end of your shift or right before you go to bed – it’s hard for the body to digest food when your sleeping, and can lead to problems like gastric reflux.

7. Stay fit. Exercise will keep your mind alert and your body able to handle the stress of your changing schedule. 20 minutes of exercise at least three times a week will help combat stress, mental fatigue and keep you feeling positive about yourself.

8. Maintain an active social life. When you’re working different hours from everyone else, it can be easy to become isolated and depressed. Spend quality time with loved ones, make plans with friends, make sure your spouse doesn’t feel neglected. Don’t let hobbies, sports and other activities you enjoy fall by the wayside due to your new schedule – staying emotionally happy is as important to battling fatigue and stress as diet and physical exercise.

9. Avoid dehydration at all costs. Carry a bottle of water with you while you're on the night shift, and make it a habit to drink it regularly. Ensuring that your body stays well hydrated will keep you feeling better.

10. Eat right. Nothing will exhaust your body faster than a poor diet. Be sure to include a variety of fruits and vegetables to stay healthy.

Night shift work may not be easy, but it is certainly a requirement of this profession. Keep these tips in mind to battle the problems associated with night shift work, and you'll be on your way to success.