I recently began teaching ESL classes online to Chinese children. I work from home, and I finally said goodbye to the overwhelming bustle of the food service industry. The catch: I work from 12AM-6AM. I didn’t truly understand what this meant until I noticed a decline in my physical and mental health.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 15 million Americans work during prime sleeping hours. I love my job, but when I first started I hadn’t taken necessary precautions to protect myself. Very quickly the night hours began taking a toll on me. Often this sector of people is prone to a number of health issues due to lack of sleep. Harvard researchers have found that night shift workers are at a higher risk of diabetes and cancer than people who work day jobs. These findings are alarming, but many of us cannot simply stop night shift work. The good news is that there are preventative measures for us night owls.
A First-Hand Look at Beginning the Night Shift Life
I think my body was in shock because when I started working at night, I actually liked the lack of sleep. I thought to myself, “Now I can actually get stuff done.” Classic naive Elena. After teaching, I felt a buzz from staring at a computer screen all night. I’d stay up and continue doing stuff on the computer. I would watch the sunrise then I would hop in bed and sleep until only 1 or 2 pm. At first my sleep count was at 5 hours a day.
A week in, I started drinking more coffee. Across the street from my house is a 24-hour mart. Going to the convenient store over and over, I began to succumb to my junk food temptations. Between classes, I sometimes only had 15 minutes to spare, so it was easy to grab a bag of chips and some candy.
Two weeks into the job, I noticed I was feeling sluggish. I was irritable and fighting with my partner. I was crying at random times. I began waking up at 5 PM, feeling tired. I would just lay around. My short-term memory was shot and it was hard to concentrate on one thing. I became overwhelmed by little things and I was losing control.
What I Learned & Tips to Survive Night Shift Life
My initial hopes for this new job were being confronted by the reality of the situation. If I was going to have a life outside of agitation and the mini-mart across the street, I had to try out some new things. Here is what worked for me in sustaining the nightshift ritual.
1. Make Sure Sleep Is Part Of Your Routine!
People who work irregular hours are prone to Night Shift Sleep Disorder. Symptoms arise when we deprive ourselves of the full 7-9 hours of sleep. If you’re not getting a full rotation of sleep then, you’re prone to excessive sleepiness, lack of energy, irritability, depression, and the inability to concentrate. These are factors that can cause damage to your relationships at home and in the workplace. It took me a month to get on a full sleep routine. Before, when I got done with work, I’d only sleep for a few hours. Once the sun came up I couldn’t stay asleep.
2. Sleep In COMPLETE and TOTAL Darkness
Sunrises are romantic, but for the person finishing work at 7am, they are problematic. Our bodies run on biological timers called circadian rhythms. This is affected by the environment. Light and darkness activate different processes in the body. A 2012 study by Buxton et al. found that when circadian rhythms are disrupted, there is a higher risk of developing diabetes. Without complete darkness, our metabolic rate goes down. The study found that after a year of working the night shift, people gained up to 10 more pounds. To avoid this, pick up some blackout covers for your windows. If you’re leaving the office as the sun is coming up, wear sunglasses to reduce the amount of daylight you’re exposed to.
3. Plan Your Caffeine Consumption Accordingly
I made a rule for myself to not drink coffee before I taught. This was difficult because by the time I sat down to teach, I was already starting to feel drowsy. But if I drank coffee right before I taught I found that I couldn’t fall asleep after my classes. Sometimes I would stay up until 10 AM and then I was still struggling to hit the hay. Caffeine blocks the sleep-inducing component called adenosine, which is what causes our neurotransmitters to slow down and allow us to rest. The half-life of caffeine is between 4-6 hours. This means that if you have 200mg of caffeine at 5 PM, then at 10 PM you will have 100mg left in you.
4. Consume Food Accordingly
Working during the night causes the metabolism to slow down. After a long night of work, it’s hard to motivate yourself to cook food. Before, I was eating fast food and drinking on a daily basis. Now I start my day with 32 oz of lemon water. While I’m making it through my water, I prepare my day’s meals. For my first meal, I might sautée some greens and consume it with an egg and piece of fruit. I take this time to prepare my dinner which consists of beans, rice, vegetables, and a cut of meat. While I work I have peppermint tea. Throughout my shift I stay hydrated and always keep water on hand. At the end of my shift, I have my prepared dinner and top it off with a fish oil pill, turmeric pill, and biotin. This has kept my mood positive, my skin clearer, and my energy levels up.
6. Ritualize Your Decompression
Once I finish work, I turn it ALL off. I close my computer, put away my cell phone, and I stay away from social media. After a long night of work, the last thing the brain needs is more stimuli. Screens emit blue light which blocks the production of melatonin, which allows us to sleep. I’ve got myself an old school alarm clock so that I don’t have to worry about depending on my phone. After work, I give myself an hour or two to relax myself. I take a shower, do some light stretching, and drink a mug of herbal tea. Finally, I finish off my night of hard work in a blacked-out room by a low emitting light and my latest novel.