How to Work the Third Shift and Stay Healthy

The third shift: unavoidable for some, dreaded by many. At a time when it’s difficult just to stay awake, you are expected to function at a reasonable level. Unfortunately, laboring through the night can wreak havoc on your body, weakening your immune system and causing a destructive decrease in energy. It’s difficult for the body’s internal clock to adapt to shift work, and laboring through the night often causes insomnia and indigestion. It becomes even trickier if you have to switch between day and night shifts. 

If you are one of the millions of people that work the third shift, it's even more important to prioritize healthy living. Taking steps to improve your sleep, nutrition and activity levels will keep your body in tip-top shape and help you live life to the fullest outside of working hours. 

1. Sleep

It’s often the hardest element to get right if you are working late. Your body is ready to crash halfway through the shift, but when you return home your family is up and about. Spending quality time with them often stands in the way of enough sleep, and it’s almost impossible to choose between the two. What can you do?

Sleep is one of the most important gifts you can give your body. But you are fighting your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle by staying up through the night, and sleep loss can be dangerous. Even if you are sleeping during the day instead of the night, you still need an average of eight hours to keep your body functioning properly. It’s important to make this a continuous eight hours, too.

Often, third shift workers break up their sleep in order to spend more time with loved ones and do activities that they enjoy. Of course, this is key to a happy life and positive relationships, but it also keeps your body from going through the proper sleep cycles, rotating from light to deep sleep. If you are sleeping for a few hours in the morning and then an hour or so before work, your body will not be rested enough and ready for the next shift.

Sure, it’s easy to talk about being well-rested, but when it comes down to actually doing it, it's easier said than done. Even if you are good about laying down in bed to catch some zzz’s, your environment--from your kids are bouncing around outside your door to your neighbor cutting grass--might stand in the way.<pagebreak>

To fall asleep quickly and soundly, try these tips: 
  • Have a sleep ritual. Go to sleep as soon as you can after work. Don't get caught up with chores, errands and scheduling. Save this for later when you can devote your full attention to them. Come home from work, find a way to relax and then hit the hay.
  • If you are exposed to a lot of sunlight right after work, your body will perk up and make sleep difficult. Don’t stay outside longer than necessary before bed and make your room as dark as possible, even if you must resort to blinds, curtains or a sleep mask.
  • To keep disturbing noise to a minimum, invest in a good set of ear plugs. Unplug the phone in your room. Talk to your family members about taking extra care to be quiet.
  • Avoid the overuse of sleep aids. Sure, they can be a temporary solution, but in the long run they could cover up a larger problem. They are not actually helping your body clock to adjust, so talk to your doctor before using these. The same goes for alcohol--it might make you sleep faster, but you won’t sleep as soundly.
  • Avoid caffeine. It might help you make it through your shift, but if you drink coffee too close to bedtime, you’ll have a terrible time trying to fall asleep.

2. Nutrition

Eating healthy when your timetable seems so backwards is difficult. To maintain a nourishing diet, it’s vital to adjust your meal routine around your schedule. Do not skip meals. To avoid pumping in empty calories from vending machines or fast food, plan ahead. It is easy to eat to pass the time, but you’ll gain weight this way. Bring a healthy meal with you to work and follow these four tips to stay fueled without mindlessly munching. 
  • Don’t eat a huge meal right at the end of your shift. It will sit in your stomach as you try to sleep, leading to trouble digesting as well as disrupted slumber. Your body will have difficulty burning the extra calories and they can turn to fat.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout your shift. Dehydration can cause cramps and headaches, which can make your shift very unpleasant.
  • Fuel up on complex carbs, which will release energy slowly over a long period of time, versus quick sugar bursts that won't last too long. Also, protein will fuel your muscles throughout the night.
  • Time your meals and activities to match your "day."

3. Third Shift Secrets

It might seem like survival of the fittest. You are falling asleep standing one night, while your co-worker trots cheerily along. What gives? What are they doing that’s making them better equipped to handle the third shift? It probably has less to do with superhuman powers than you might think.
  • On-the-job exercise can boost your alertness. If you have an extra break where you can get in a few minutes of a good workout, take advantage! If you can’t exercise at work, try doing it at other times. This will create better daytime sleep. A word of caution: Don’t work out right after you get home, before going to sleep. It will wake you up and make snoozing difficult. Try working out before you go to work instead.
  • Exposure to bright light will also improve your alertness. Obviously, if it’s dark out, this can’t come from a natural source. Turn on the lights or consider investing in a light therapy box. 
  • Music helps to break up the monotony of a long shift. If you are allowed, bring in your own music. Use fast-paced sounds to pump you up when you are dragging towards the end of the shift.
  • Missing your family? Include scheduled time when you can call them, maybe right when they get up in the morning or before their bedtimes. Also, try keeping a bulletin board in your house where you can leave or receive messages. Write them notes, and they’ll return the favor.