5 Tips for Shift Workers: How to Cope with Circadian Rhythm Disruption


4 min read

Shift workers are especially vulnerable to the health-draining effects of a disrupted circadian rhythm. Irregular sleep patterns can lead to slower metabolism, decreased cardiovascular function, and chronic disease — so what do you do when your work hours conflict with your internal clock? This blog explores the following tips to help you adapt:


Millions of Americans are shift workers, including nurses, doctors, factory workers, and restaurant workers. Because they work odd hours, shift workers are more likely to experience problems with their circadian rhythm, which can lead to irregular sleep patterns, chronic sleep loss, and a misaligned internal biological clock.

When your circadian rhythm is interrupted by irregular work hours, it can affect your body in myriad ways, including body temperature, hormone balance, digestion, and other bodily functions. Consequently, irregular rhythms have been linked to chronic conditions such as sleep disorders, diabetes, and depression.

In addition, shift workers are often more likely to feel isolated because their jobs cut them off from their friends and families. The lack of connection and interaction with loved ones makes them even likelier to experience bouts of depression. In these and many other ways, a hectic and irregular work schedule can make staying healthy much more of a challenge.


Losing Sleep and Good Health to Shift Work

When you work an irregular shift, it can be difficult to find a rhythm that works for your body. You’ll feel more drained in your off time and exercising regularly might seem almost impossible. That alone can lead to a plethora of disadvantages, such as weak bones, decreased metabolism, heightened risks of cardiovascular disease, and, of course, poor sleep.

If you’re sedentary for most of your time at work, those risks become even more prominent. Working late makes you prone to eating junk food because you’re eating when your body thinks it should be sleeping. You’ll crave energy-dense foods that are high in calories, fat, and carbs — and few healthy food outlets are open in the middle of the night.

Eating fast food or vending machine snacks instead means eating mostly pro-inflammatory, highly processed foods. The low-quality nutrition coupled with the odd hours makes falling and staying asleep infinitely more difficult. Without deep, regenerative sleep, your body can’t grow and repair muscles, refresh your immune system, or flush toxins out of your brain.

Losing high-quality sleep for even a single night can throw a wrench into your circadian rhythm and metabolism. The resulting domino effect can trigger excess weight gain, chronic inflammation, and more. This is just one possible explanation for the link between sleep deprivation and the health problems that shift workers often experience.


The Challenge for Everyone with Hectic Schedules

Many people are forced into uncommon sleep patterns by hectic, irregular schedules. Besides doctors, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners, factory workers and security guards also work all-night shifts. Parents with newborns are no strangers to sleep deprivation, and in the age of round-the-clock technology, white-collar workers are also working the third shift now.

No matter the reason, a hectic schedule that disrupts your circadian rhythm can also lower your sleep quality, affect your mood, decrease your metabolism and cardiovascular health, and raise your risks of chronic disease. Fortunately, making these few adjustments and being conscious of your actions can help balance your rhythm and mitigate many of those risks:


1. Get plenty of sun before your shift starts.

Daylight is a natural stimulant, so take a walk in it before your shift. Exposure to sunlight is an important signal to your circadian rhythm, and it’s long been prescribed therapeutically for psychiatric and other critical illnesses. Research has shown that overexposure to unnatural light in its stead can negatively impact that rhythm, which makes taking advantage of daylight while you can even more important.


2. Take move-around breaks instead of coffee breaks.

During your shift, take advantage of every break you can to move around. Squeeze in a few more walks or a short exercise routine, if possible. Even a little bit of physical activity can help combat the effects of a sedentary lifestyle and keep your energy levels up throughout the night. Also, avoid drinking coffee for the last half of your shift. Drinking caffeine within the hours before you go to bed will make falling and staying asleep unnecessarily difficult.


3. Keep your meals properly balanced.

What you eat at and out of work will play a vital role in staying energized when necessary and winding down when it’s time to sleep. Eat balanced meals that include veggies, high-quality protein, and healthy fats and carbs (such as sweet potatoes and rice). Keep healthy snacks on hand to avoid trips to the vending machine, and use a healthy food delivery service to make preparing your meals and snacks easier.


4. Invest in tech to track your sleep.

Much like your diet, the best way to gauge the quality of your sleep is to track it. A sleep tracker such as the Oura ring can show you exactly how much sleep you’re receiving and the quality of it, as well as track your heart rate variability. If you’ve had a poor night’s sleep, with little or no deep sleep, you might want to opt for a walk over a workout to balance your energy levels.


5. Use light to rewire your internal clock.

If your sleep tracker shows that your quality of sleep needs improvement, then try reprogramming your biological clock. This clock tells your body when to secrete the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and it’s largely influenced by light and dark cycles. Keep the lights as bright as possible while you work, and wear sunglasses on your way out to let your brain know that it’s time to start winding down.

Every year, more and more people join the shift work population and face the same challenges. Maintaining a healthy sleep cycle, diet, and lifestyle can seem impossible when you’re working when you should be resting. But with these tips and a healthy eating strategy, you can make the shift much easier.


Kelley Baker is a Nutrition Health Coach with 15 years of experience of personal training and holistic lifestyle coaching. Her certifications include NASM, C.H.E.K, ICANS, and Poliquin.