If you work a graveyard shift—or any shift work, including rotating shifts—you may find that the schedule is wreaking havoc on your ability to stick to a healthy eating and exercise program. On top of that, the disruptions to your circadian rhythm can throw off your body’s hormonal balance, making you more likely to overeat high-calorie foods.Gaining weight is a serious side effect of taking shift work. Fortunately, by making some simple adjustments, you can start losing the extra pounds—or at the very least, maintain your current weight.
Why Shift Work Leads to Weight Gain
Shift work is tough on the body. Not getting consistent, uninterrupted sleep or enough sleep (7 to 9 hours per 24-hour period) throws your body’s neatly-calibrated system into disarray. Sleep deprivation increases fatty acids levels, raises your cortisol (the stress hormone associated with an increase in belly fat), raises your blood glucose levels, and promotes insulin resistance—making you twice as likely to develop Type II diabetes.
Not sleeping at night when your body is designed to sleep contradicts your body clock, too. The human body is meant to sleep during the night and be awake and alert during daylight hours. Throughout the day, appetite-regulating hormones work in concert with melatonin (the sleep hormone) to dictate when you should be hungry and when you might want to take a nap.
If you’re a shift worker—particularly, a night shift worker—you’re fighting your body’s natural signals. Instead of entering deep sleep at 2:00 A.M., for example, you’re three hours into your graveyard shift, reaching for a Diet Coke and a candy bar to help you stay awake.
Being awake when you should be asleep (and vice versa) confuses your body clock, including the hormones responsible for managing hunger. Shift workers tend to have lower-than-average levels of leptin, which suppresses hunger, and higher-than-average levels of ghrelin, which stimulates it.
The net result: you get hungry but your “off switch” doesn’t work properly. You keep eating.
Unfortunately, you’re probably tired and sleep-deprived as well as famished—meaning you’re more likely to reach for fatty, sugary, high-calorie foods to give you energy. Researchers estimate that shift workers consume about 600 extra calories per day. Multiply this by seven days and you’re consuming 4200 extra calories per week.
How many calories does it take to gain one pound of fat? 3500 calories.
If, like many shift workers, you’re not finding the time to exercise, you could be putting on more than a pound per week. Over the course of a year, that’s 50 pounds or more of weight gain, which is likely to make you obese. Obesity is about much more than vanity. Overweight shift workers are at an increased risk for developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other serious conditions.
So if you work a graveyard shift, an early morning shift, or a rotating shift, what can you do to lose weight, manage your weight, and reduce your risk of obesity-related health problems? Here are our tips.
7 Tips for Night Shift Weight Loss
Remember, the #1 reason you’re hungry and putting on weight is sleep deprivation. Many of the tips in this list focus on how shift workers can get better sleep.
- Avoid caffeine later in your shift. The half-life of caffeine is about 6 hours, which means it takes 12 hours to eliminate all traces of it from your system. To improve your chances of getting high-quality sleep after your shift, drink coffee or energy drinks early—then avoid stimulants for the rest of your work day. If you feel your energy dipping, get up and move your body for a minute. Other natural ways to stay awake: drink water to stay hydrated, chew gum, or eat something healthy and crunchy, like an apple or baby carrots.
- Eat healthful meals and snacks. Choose nutrient-rich foods and snacks instead of junk food. Working overnight shifts can limit your available options; health food restaurants don’t stay open 24 hours, leaving you susceptible to whatever’s available in the work cafeteria, the fast-food menu, or the vending machine.
Packing your own lunch and snacks is a good way to avoid these fattening temptations. Healthieroptions include lower-calorie sandwiches on whole grain bread, fruit, raw vegetables, plain popcorn, Greek yogurt, salad, and nuts. Choose water or unsweetened drinks over soda or caffeinated beverages.
Eat a small, balanced snack right before bed so you don’t wake up hungry; calcium, magnesium, tryptophan, and whole grains help to promote sleep, so look for snacks with those ingredients (e.g., crackers paired with peanut butter, cheese, turkey, or sardines). However, avoid large meals or spicy foods right before sleep—both can wake you up with stomach problems.
- Fit your exercise in. If you can, wake up early and exercise before your shift; an early morning workout can give you a mood and energy boost that lasts throughout the day. Home exercise equipment or a 24-hour gym membership may be helpful for this. If you can’t find the opportunity for a dedicated workout, though, the good news is you can squeeze in short bouts of exercise throughout the day. The government guidelines are 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week. That’s 5 sessions of 30 minutes—but the 30 minutes can be split up any way that’s convenient for you.
- To keep your metabolism active during the night shift, aim for three 10-minute bursts over the course of the day. If you have two 15-minute breaks, for example, you can use them to climb stairs or speed-walk inside or outside the building. If you can find a quiet space, a few crunches and a 30-second yoga plank position can help maintain upper body and core strength.
Never sacrifice sleep to exercise. After your shift, it’s more important to wind down and go to bed. Sleep deprivation and the hormonal changes it causes are the main culprits behind your weight gain. Always prioritize sleep.
- Sneak in more hours of sleep—whenever you can. Night shift workers tend to develop a circadian rhythm disorder created by their schedules. Because of this, your body clock may wake you after 5 hours of sleep instead of the recommended 7 to 9. Also, your sleep drive may increase to compensate for your sleep deprivation, which will make it harder to stay awake at work.
To pack more hours of sleep into each 24-hour period, you can try a few strategies. Napping just before your shift may help, if that’s possible; some workers sleep five hours immediately after a shift, then take a two-hour nap before they return to work the next day. A 15 to 20-minute nap during your shift may also help, if your employer will allow this (many will, for safety reasons).
- Drive home “in the dark.” A pair of wraparound, dark-tinted sunglasses may be the best investment ashift worker can make. Wearing them as you drive home in the daytime can trick your body clock—and your melatonin levels—into believing it’s nighttime. This one change can have a big impact on your body’s ability to slip into sleep when you get home from your shift.
- Go right to bed. When you get home, go to bed as soon as you can to maximize the number of hours you’ll get before your body clock tries to wake you. If you need to wind down, pick a relaxing activity you can do in dim lighting—for example, read a calming book using a book light instead of a lamp.
- Practice impeccable sleep hygiene. Keep your room cool, dark, and quiet. Think of your bedroom as a cave or den—a silent place to retreat to after work. Your room’s temperature should be between 65 and 70 degrees. Block out extra light with blackout curtains, and wear an eyemask and earplugs to protect yourself from light and noise.
If you can, make your space a digital-free zone, as the noise, blinking lights, and blue light from devices can disturb your rest. Good sleep hygiene extends to other household disturbances, too. Hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door to remind family that you’re asleep. Ask family and delivery people to cut down on ringing doorbells, barking dogs, and running laundry machines. Do whatever you need to do to maximize both the quality and quantity of your sleep.
These tips can help you to get more rest and to keep your body in balance. Remember: your job is important, but you’ll have nothing—work included—without your health.