7 strategies to battle the health effects of shift work

Non-conventional work hours are detrimental to our short and long term health, but you can minimize the damage

There’s no question working the graveyard shift in corrections sends your body out of whack and negatively impacts your health.

For the past 15 years, my circadian clock has been irregular, sleep patterns inconsistent, immune system suppressed, and I am a few pounds overweight and at a higher risk for breast cancer than if I held a conventional day job.

But it was not until recently when two veteran colleagues ended up being transported code 3 off their pod one dayshift apart, landing both of them in the hospital, I started to think about the impact shift work was having on my health.

This Aug. 17, 2011 file photo shows a correctional officer in one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.
This Aug. 17, 2011 file photo shows a correctional officer in one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Honestly, I had never thought about it. Instead, I’ve battled the fatigue, hunger pains and mood swings that come when you’ve have been up for 20+ hours. Once I started researching the long term effects of shift work, I realized just how detrimental non-conventional work hours can be to the health of correctional officers.

Constant stressors in the correctional world

Like many other jails and institutions across the nation, we work up to 18 hours a day due to understaffing, with a mandatory quota of 24 hours overtime per pay period. Some mornings, just before our workday ends, the phone rings advising we must stay another four hours. It can be hard to prioritize your personal health when battling with exhaustion, unhealthy food cravings and sleep deprivation. 

I recently surveyed some co-workers who say they are under “severe stress” from the pressure of working more hours, working alone for extended hours, having minimal or no breaks, and dealing with personal issues or juggling family demands. 

Many of the day shifters said they have one day off a week and aren’t getting any downtime as they are using that day to run errands, tend to the house, and do laundry or meal prep for their workdays.

I shared a list of health effects potentially caused by shift work and asked if they suffered any of these symptoms. Every person I spoke with said they suffer from a minimum of three.

Short-Term Health Effects of Shift Work:

  • Insomnia
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, constipation and upset stomach
  • Decreased quality of life
  • Increased risk of on-the-job or vehicle accidents
  • General feelings of ill health

Long-Term Health Effects of Shift Work:

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Depression and mood disorders
  • Serious gastrointestinal problems
  • Higher chance of getting colds or the flu
  • Menstrual irregularities or fertility problems

How Damaging is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation and sleep deficiency are linked to many health issues. Working nights, our body decreases its ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. Energy levels, sleepiness and wakefulness are out of whack.  Melatonin also plays a role in protecting us against cancer.

Sleep deprivation can increase our risk for heart disease. Our blood pressure drops when we sleep and not experiencing that nightly drop is a risk factor. A lack of sleep negatively affects heart health, as it increases the risk of restricted blood flow to the brain. Lack of sleep can also trigger the body’s stress response, leading to the release of stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine, which are associated with insulin resistance.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, overeating and unhealthy cravings occur when people do not get enough sleep. When the body is sleep deprived, the ghrelin hormone, which stimulates appetite, spikes. As this occurs, leptin levels fall, causing increased hunger. Another hormone affected raises lipid levels in our blood increasing cravings for cookies, candy or chips. In fact, people who do not get enough sleep eat twice as much fat and hundreds of extra calories a day compared to those who get 8 hours or more of sleep.

With ongoing sleep loss or deprivation, less insulin is released after you eat. Because of exhaustion, the body starts secreting more stress hormones (including Cortisol) to assist with staying awake. When there is too much glucose in the bloodstream, the risk of developing diabetes increases.

Disruption of our circadian clock rhythm leads to poor white blood cell health, which weakens the immune system and our physical stress response.

7 Steps to a Healthier Life

Physical and mental fatigue are caused by prolonged work, muscle tiredness, physical illness, intense emotions like anxiety or fear, stress or sleep deprivation. 

The best way to have the highest levels of peak physical performance is high levels of hydration, eat a high protein/low carbohydrate diet, and no alcohol or tobacco use.

Here are seven simple solutions to improve your health during even the busiest of weeks:

1. Plan ahead

Plan ahead when time is tight. Make lists of errands you have to do or groceries you need to buy. Lists allow you to be the most productive and organized. (I make my multiple to-do lists for my days off while I am at work during the middle of the night down time.)

2. Have a snack supply

Have healthy snacks accessible at home and work to avoid grabbing junk food or making unhealthy choices. Healthy snacks include frozen grapes, hardboiled eggs, nuts, apple and natural peanut butter, raisins, protein shakes, sliced vegetables, fresh fruit, cottage cheese, air-popped popcorn and hummus. Crockpot meals are an easy way to prepare and cook multiple meals that take minimal effort, are healthy and budget-friendly.

3. Hydrate yourself

Drink two glasses (16 oz.) of water after waking up to help activate internal organs, feed your brain with fuel, fire up your metabolism and hydrate you. Drink one glass 30 minutes before a meal to help with digestion. Drink one glass before bed to help avoid stroke and heart attacks.

Infused water can aid with health concerns. For best results, combine these ingredients with 12-16 oz. of water.

For headaches: green tea, mint and lime. 

For digestion and hydration: cucumber, lemon and lime. 

For immune defense, digestion or heartburn: lime, orange and lemon. 

4. Commuting after a long shift

Listen to an audiobook while driving to keep your mind alert. There are many non-fiction books on leadership, teamwork and management principles of the military, motivation, self-development, productivity and mindset that make for a great read and help at work.

5. Fatigue management at work

The best way to fight fatigue is to stay hydrated, take a break, walk around and prioritize work duties.

6. Heartburn

Do not drink soda as the carbonation may worsen the bloating and pressure in the stomach causing flare ups when you try to sleep.

7. Heart Health Yoga Pose

The legs-up-the-wall pose is a powerful yet incredibly restorative pose beneficial to heart health.  

You lie on your back with your bottom as close to the wall as is comfortable. You then extend your legs up the wall, so the backs of your legs are resting against it.

This pose gives your heart a rest so it does not have to pump as hard, and helps to slow down your heart rate, leaving you feel relaxed with a calmer mind.  Spend five minutes noticing the natural rhythm of your breath.

Final Thoughts

While we do not have control over the way our bodies react to shift work, we do have control over how we counteract the risks. While the changes may seem small, these incremental modifications to our lives will improve your health in the long term.

We must work hard today for the life we want to live tomorrow.

After the completion of this article, another colleague of mine suffered a stroke this past week. For a smaller agency, this is the fourth in a year. We pray for a full and swift recovery. This is a reminder, yet again, how important it is we take care of our health and wellness the best ­we can.

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