January 31, 2014

No More Night Shifts: What I Learned

The big launch I had at work this week went incredibly smoothly, and I couldn’t be happier. Not only is it a huge professional success, but the lack of major problems meant that instead of having to pull night shifts for three weeks (and we all saw how crazy I was with the lack of sleep I got on night shifts), I’m done with night shifts and get to work a normal schedule from here on out. Yippee! I’m still working on getting back to a normal sleeping schedule, but there were a few things from a health and wellness perspective that surprised me when I was on night shift, and I wanted to blog about them. Namely, how both my eating and sleeping habits changed significantly in that time.

Intuitive eating is all the rage these days, but it really hasn’t worked for me all that well when I’ve tried to follow it. When the clock says 12:30pm, my body “intuitively” becomes starving for lunch, and when I’m at happy hour at a Mexican restaurant and there are bowls of chips and queso in front of me, my body “intuitively” wants me to eat 3000 calories worth of them alone. I am definitely someone who eats out of habit and because I’m faced with something yummy, rather than using food as fuel – even though I know that’s what I ought to be doing. However, working the night shift actually really helped me to adjust those tendencies.

My schedule was generally to wake up around 11pm or midnight (depending on whether my shift was starting at midnight or 1am), shower and get to work immediately, then have a light meal as soon as I arrived. That “breakfast” was usually leftovers from the day before (who says shrimp summer rolls and pho ga can’t be breakfast foods?), since there weren’t too many places open at midnight for me to pick up food on the way. I definitely found I was hungry for that meal, and eating it helped me get going and feel more alert for my shift. (I drank surprisingly less coffee than expected while on this schedule.)

For the next few hours, I’d work away happily, but around 5am-6am my stomach would be growling – so I’d eat a small “lunch” meal then. However, unlike most work days where I’d be counting down the minutes till lunch time, I found that I didn’t get too hungry before this meal, and I wasn’t anticipating it nearly as much as usual. I think this is in large part due to the fact that all my fellow coworkers on night shift weren’t necessarily following the same eating schedule that I was, so there weren’t any “social cues” to eat – just my body’s own hunger telling me to grab a bite. (Good Laura!)

By 7am, I’d be “hungry” again – but by some strange coincidence, 7am was the time that breakfast was delivered to the office for everyone. So was that real hunger? I don’t think so, given that I had just eaten an hour or two before. I found this really interesting to see how the availability of food tricked my body into thinking it was hungry, particularly in contrast to the earlier hours of my shift when there were no social cues to eat.

Finally, after I got off work, I’d hit the gym and then grab “dinner” around noon or 1pm. Unlike most work days when I swear that I’m ravenous for dinner, I found that I actually wasn’t crazy hungry at this hour – and I tended to choose a smaller/lighter meal as a result. Again, I think my dinner choices are normally much more about “look at the clock – time to eat a big dinner!” rather than me actually thinking about whether I’m hungry. Even though I’m off night shift now, I’m hoping I can keep some of that more intuitive eating attitude going forward, and recognize when I’m hungry and when I’m just taking external cues to eat. (Or stuffing my face because the food is there rather than because I’m still hungry – I also noticed that I didn’t feel the need to be such a Clean Plate Clubber when I was eating at these odd hours.)

As for sleep, this was definitely the biggest challenge of the schedule change. In order to get in a full eight hours (ha, like that ever happened), I’d have to go to bed around 3pm or 4pm. Not so easy to get yourself ready for bed when the sun is brightly shining! I tried to wear sunglasses in the car after leaving work, so I wouldn’t get quite as much sunlight to wake me up.

Done With Work At 10am
Walking out of my windowless conference room to 10am daylight was jarring!

I also did my best to make my hotel room as dark as possible, closing the blinds, throwing towels over electronics, and using a sleep mask. However, I found myself only able to sleep in nap-like segments of a few hours at a time. What ended up working best was for me to start trying to go to bed around 1pm and just accept that I’d probably only get 3-4 hours of sleep at once. I’d then wake up for another hour or two, trying not to stress about “wasting” my sleep time, and then try to get another 3-4 hours more when I started to get drowsy again. (Second sleep FTW!)

MySleepBot Night Shifts
This schedule made for some crazy patterns in MySleepBot tracker

However, this kind of sleep schedule isn’t really something that I can keep up now that I’m off night shifts. For one thing, it’s really not conducive to having any kind of social life, since all my free time was when most of my friends were working. It also made it tricky to go to gym classes rather than just working out on my own, since a lot of class schedules don’t do anything between 10am and 3pm. (I miss Flywheel!) Finally, in order to get a good night’s sleep with multiple nap-like segments, I actually needed to allocate about 12 hours to be in bed – and I just don’t have time for that on a daily basis.

Overall, I am thrilled to rejoin normal life of working 8-7ish and then sleeping when everyone else does… but I am hoping I can take some of the things I learned this week and apply them to make me healthier going forward.


2 thoughts on “No More Night Shifts: What I Learned”

  1. Wow, transitioning to the night shift sounds intense! I have a hard enough time with the short, dark winter days here in Germany that I use an energy lamp to convince my body that it IS actually day time! But so interesting how it affects even eating habits too, huh? Thanks for sharing!

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