Anyone who has had to work night shifts before will know that unique feeling you get when you have a set of them coming up. Its a combination of dread and reluctance, with a grim acceptance that you will have to turn your body clock on its head for a while. That’s sounds so negative I know – and don’t get me wrong, work is work, and anyone entering a career that involves shift work knows that from the get-go! I’ve been working a qualified doctor over 18 months now, and I’ve definitely done a LOT of night shifts and 24 hour shifts already, with many more in the future I’m sure. Personally, I do always get that little bit of fear starting off – plus there’s something a bit funky about starting your ‘day’ of work when everyone is going to bed, and finishing as a new day kicks off for the rest of the world!
From chatting to fellow doctors, nurses and other staff on the wards, I’ve noticed the main concern people have while ‘on nights’ is how to maintain some form of normal routine, and a healthy one at that. I’m talking meals, sleep, hydration, snacking. Obviously, at night-time there are SO little options in terms of food – a vending machine here and there, tea or coffee from the ward kitchen, you get the picture. Another key point is how BUSY nights can be. During the day, there’s a conventional norm that ‘lunchtime’ is a protected slot (however short) in the day to refuel and recharge for an afternoon of work. Not so in the middle of the night. And I’ve often been asked my own approach to nights – so I thought I’d put a little post together for you guys covering my top tips for being a healthy night owl! I’ve gone with my top FIVE – so here it goes!
1. PLAN AHEAD – and plan to make your night a regular day.
Time to reverse the body clock people, and that means we need a PLAN OF ACTION. I’ll give you an example. If I have, say, 5 night shifts in a row ahead of me, I will generally sit down with my notebook a couple of days in advance, and jot down a couple of things. First, what am I going to eat? This makes me pick a recipe, and that way I am making something I’ll look forward to tucking into at whatever stage in the night I can catch a break. Having a balanced meal and a couple of snacks (e.g. fruit, veggies with hummus, nut and seed snack packs, yoghurt, a couple of squares of dark chocolate) in your bag or fridge at work means that you’ve got something you KNOW is homemade, will fuel you up right, and most importantly, is nourishing for your body. Once you’ve picked your recipe (s), all you need to do is allocate a little time to hit the shops for ingredients, and set yourself that hour to prep your meal of choice. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail people, as the saying goes!
2. Meals (AKA The MOST Important Thing!)
Ahh food. The most important part of prepping for your shift! My rule of thumb for an easy transition to and from night shifts is to avoid any drastic changes to what you eat. So, what that means to me is that I will prep the same kind of meals for my break as I would if I was eating it for lunch during the day time. For example, before I start my night, I eat my usual dinner. Then, I try to grab a break somewhere in the middle of the night (this usually ends up being two thirds of the way through the shift, if not later, as most fellow junior doctors will know!), and I eat my tupperware meal then. I also pack an apple, a homemade protein/snack bar and herbal tea bags and/or decaf coffee. This is because first, TEA, and second, occasional there just ISN’T time on a crazy shift to get a full meal. I try to avoid this happening if at all possible, but if it does, I’ve got a quick snack bar and piece of fruit for a healthy fix. Lastly, in the morning when I’m home, I have my usual breakfast (e.g. a bowl of oats or zoats), and I hit the hay.
Basically, you’re aiming for your usual 3 meals a day with or without snacks over that 12 hour-ish period you normally have during the day! When I first did nights as an intern, I remember literally not knowing HOW to take a break. Unlike nurses, doctors just don’t have protected breaks at night time. I’m not gonna jump on a soap-box about that now. But my point is that I just had to learn to be sensible – nobody will thank you for NOT taking even just 20 minutes to eat. You’re no use for making decisions if you’re running around hypoglycaemic – your brain just can’t work properly!
Lastly, a word on the night shift sweet tooth. In my experience, nights are when ALL the treat food comes out – most wards I work on have a box of Roses/Celebrations/biscuits/floating around, and everyone dips in and out of these throughout the night. While there’s nothing wrong with a little treat, try to avoid circling back to these as your snacks, especially when you’re hangry. It’s only going to give you a brief sugar rush and a quick crash. Instead, keep well hydrated (see below), make time for a proper MEAL during your shift, and pack healthy alternatives as I’ve suggested (chopped veggies, unsalted nuts, a couple of squares of dark chocolate) to keep you from the temptation!
You may or may not agree with me on this one, but hear me out. Of course, getting some movement into your day/night, even if its just going outside for a short walk, can seem like the absolute LAST thing you want to do before or after a night of work. I know when I wake up to get ready for my night all I want to do is crawl back into bed, and the same when I finish my shift!
My personal habit is that I always workout or get my body moving in some way after I finish a night shift. Many people recommend doing a workout BEFORE you start the night instead. To be honest, I don’t think timing really matters, no matter what the studies say – you have to find the time that works best for you. I workout after my shift for a number of reasons – first, my gym is beside the hospital, and I miss all the morning rush hour traffic by driving home AFTER my workout (I HATE traffic – bonus!). Second, I find it acts as a massive stress buster for me – a busy shift can leave your mind racing over patients you saw, tests you ordered, etc – and getting a sweat on just empties my mind of all that! And lastly, a morning workout really helps me sleep the whole day, because I’m just that bit more tired. This usually isn’t a crazy intense session – it might be a swim, a weights workout, or just a half hour walk – but it’s enough to calm the mind, and get rid of that nervous energy.
If that sounds backwards to you, try both ways! See what suits you best. I do recommend continuing with regular exercise while you do nights, even just getting a bout of fresh air will do you the world of good in a nocturnal week!
4. Hydration and Caffeine
I have two points to make on this one, and they’re both short and sweet. Hydration is SO important when on nights. It’s typically (for doctors anyway) a busier shift than the daytime, and you can clock up a LOT of steps and energy burned on your feet for anything from 8 to 12 hours or longer. We’ve talked about food, but keeping yourself hydrated is equally important. I bring a large bottle of water (1L usually) with me to work, and a small 330ml bottle in my little on-call bag. If your workplace has water coolers, even better – chug back a cup or two whenever you can. Aim to hydrate as you would during the day!
Now let’s talk CAFFEINE. I know what you’re gonna say – but Ciara, I NEED coffee to keep me going during the night. And hey, I can’t stop you. But I am advising you to try to limit the caffeine as much as you can during the night shift. Personally, I mostly avoid coffee completely on nights. I drink green tea or Rooibos tea, and sometimes in the morning I have a quick sip of a coffee before I hit the gym. But in general, caffeine-ating up to your eyeballs is only gonna make it more difficult for you when you have to return to your day shifts. Try decaf coffee if you love the flavour, that’s my trick!
5. Returning to Daylight Saving Hours
So you’ve finished your week of nights. EUPHORIA! Where to for brunch??? Those are my immediate thoughts when I finish anyway! Brunch is my favourite thing to treat myself to after a long week of the night life – I definitely recommend it to celebrate, especially if you’ve done your shifts with a group of friends.
But after brunch, on that day you finish, I advise trying to get just a LITTLE sleep. You WILL be tempted to hop into bed and sleep for days – but DON’T. Instead, aim for a nap of about 2-4 hours length, set an alarm, and MAKE yourself get up. You want to be able to sleep that night, so reset your body clock to daytime from the get-go. I know this varies between professions, but the most time I have ever had to switch back over is about 3-4 days – so I try to get back on track as quickly as I can to avoid that ‘hangover’ feeling that can linger after a set of nights.
And that’s a wrap people! I really hope you found this helpful – I would have loved to read something like this before my first week of nights – it’s such a unique experience, and very unsettling the first time you do it! I would love your feedback on this, and any other similar topics you might like me to cover!
Ciara 🙂 x