Nursing is hard work at any time; however, switching to the night shift can really take its toll on your health, resulting in extreme tiredness, which can affect your concentration, and sleep disruption, which can affect your energy levels. Night work can cause mental as well as physical upsets, so it’s very important to prepare yourself for a change of shifts beforehand and to really look after yourself once you’re working overnight on a regular basis. Here are a few things that you can do to help yourself stay healthy and fit.

Respect Your Sleep Cycle

Your natural circadian rhythm has to make a big readjustment on night shift, when you’re meant to be alert and working during a period you are normally asleep. One thing that may help is installing blackout blinds wherever you plan to sleep during daylight hours. Screening out daylight may make it easier to get to sleep. A sleep mask and ear plugs may also prove useful. Also, there are a few other things that might help, some of which are practiced by seasoned travelers who frequently move through several different time zones on long-haul flights.

Schedule Your Sleep

Once your schedule is embedded in a period of night working, it will actually help you to maintain a consistent timetable. Try to do this even on your nights off, if you know that you will be working the shift for, say, ten weeks in a row. Setting up a regular regime can help enormously, and there’s no harm in building in a nap. Try doing some light exercise and then having a shower after your shift. Aim to sleep for four or five hours and then have a nutritious meal. You can always have a final short nap: two hours should be enough for you to feel refreshed and ready for work. If you find it difficult to sleep during daylight hours, you can always take melatonin, a supplement used to combat jet lag.

Exercise for Better Health

Don’t be misled into thinking that you should give up your exercise routine when on night shift – quite the opposite. You don’t need to do a full gym workout; however, light exercise will make you feel better, and there are some clever aids that will help you become fitter more quickly. One way to feel great while working out is to wear a compression shirt to get extra support for your back, arms, and shoulders, provided by the clothing’s built in compression features. You can also get support for other body areas, depending on the kind of exercise that you prefer. Compression wear is also worn as a lifestyle choice – for example, compression socks will support your legs while you’re on your feet at work.

Exercise may sound impossible to nurses working 12-hour shifts, but being consistent can help you maintain your energy and keep you at your best. If you can’t do a workout on the days that you are on shift, you can always opt for a brisk walk or a gentle yoga session. Any low-impact activity is better than none. On your days off, you can always take a trip to the gym or try out some weights.

Eat Well

It’s tempting to fill up on lots of food at mealtimes on the basis that this might benefit your energy levels; however, be warned that regular heavy, stodgy meals will actually have the opposite effect. Your stomach will feel uncomfortably full, and if you wash down greasy food with gallons of caffeine, you’re on a self-destructive path that may make you more sleepless than ever.

To avoid energy drain halfway through your shift, try to eat frequent small nutritious snacks that include plenty of minerals and vitamins, such as salads, nuts, fresh fruit, or dishes with lots of vegetables.

Stay Hydrated

You probably already bring a bottle of water with you to work, but if not, it’s good to consider doing so. Drinking water can help you to stay alert and may reduce your level of tiredness during your shift. Other nutritious drinks include herbal teas, with reduced or no sugar, and fruit or vegetable juices, with reduced sodium. Avoid alcohol before, during, and after work as well as soft drinks that are loaded with sugar. Like caffeine, sugary drinks will give you a temporary boost that will wear off pretty quickly during your working hours.

Look After Yourself

The key message, then, is look after yourself when you’re working night shifts and be aware of the likely impacts on your personal well-being. Be prepared and you’re likely to cope well and recover quicker.

Jeffery Stinton

Jeffery Stinton is a journalist who specializes in health.

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