We know that night shift is hard on the body. The National Sleep Foundation reports, “Long-term night shift work is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, as well as metabolic problems, heart disease, ulcers, gastrointestinal problems and obesity. Insufficient sleep has been shown to change metabolism and appetite, and studies have shown that shift workers have higher levels of triglycerides than day workers. Added to these biological factors, shift workers sometimes have irregular eating habits and poor diet—both of which could increase their risk of metabolic problems.”1
A 2016 study published in the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA), as reported on www.lifespa.com, noted that women who worked rotating night shifts were at a greater risk for blood sugar issues and heart health concerns. The risk ranged from 15 to 18 percent higher, compared to women who did not work night shifts. (Rotating night shift work was defined as three or more night shifts per month, in addition to day and evening shifts).2
When the women stopped working night shifts, however, the women’s risk factors diminished over time. The moral of this story? If you have to work nights, try to limit it to just a few years. And gentlemen, for now, let’s assume that this lesson applies to you as well!
FACTORS THAT AFFECT THE BODY’S NATURAL RHYTHMS
Theories on why night work is unhealthy abound. Ayurveda understands that living out of harmony with nature is disastrous for one’s health long-term.
You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythms, the cycle of chemical and physiological processes that happen in the body over the course of roughly one twenty-four hour period. Important hormones, like cortisol3, serotonin, adrenaline and melatonin4, in addition to external cues, like access to sunlight, help the body know when to rev up and wind down.
Ayurveda has suggested similar cycles in the body based on the rise and fall of the three doshas—Kapha, Pitta and Vata. When we align our routines with the doshas, everything functions properly and with ease. When we do not, sleep and digestive disorders arise, which eventually lead to disease and emotional instability. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you align your eating and sleeping cycles with the body’s natural clock for better health and emotional well being.
WHEN YOUR INCOME DEPENDS ON WORKING NIGHTS
Sometimes we can’t comply with the natural rhythms of the day. For a day or two when the kids are sick or there is some emergency, we may feel out of sorts, but we can get back to normal fairly quickly. When you find yourself working nights or rotating shifts for an extended period of time, however, be sure to use the following tips to help alleviate the anticipated strain on your nervous system:
- As much as possible, try to follow the same routine whether you are on or off work, that is, try to wake up and go to bed the same time of day on weekends as you do on workdays. While working nights might be hard on your nervous system, keeping a regular routine can help calm it and regulate your body’s functions.
- If you can’t align with normal circadian or doshic recommendations, at least try to work with the governing qualities of the doshas. As an example, if your shift is typically 11:00 pm – 7:00 am, try to:
- Make sure your room is dark and fall asleep as soon as you get home, using the last half (8:00 – 10:00 am) of the Kapha time of day to help you naturally relax and slow down.
- Allow your body to detox during the Pitta time as you continue to sleep from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm.
- Wake by 4:00 pm, the middle of the Vata time of day, using Vata’s energy to get your body and brain moving. You can eat a small meal to break your fast and fuel your system before exercising and heading off to work. Allow yourself at least 10 minutes outside in the sun without glasses or suntan lotion.
- Sit down and relax as you eat your biggest meal between 10:00 pm and 12:00 midnight. Pitta is high so your
metabolism should be high as well.
- Eat a small, supplemental meal during your last break, preferably before 5 or 5:30 in the morning. Do not eat too close to bedtime.
- On the other hand, if your shift is typically 3:00 pm -11:00 pm, try to:
- Run errands, exercise and do chores when you get off work, using the Pitta and Vata times of night to support your productivity.
- Make sure your bedroom is dark and you are in bed by 6:00 am at the latest; the Kapha time of day (6:00 – 10:00 am) will support a deep sleep and the Pitta window (between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm) will enable your body to benefit from a thorough detox.
- Have a light bite after you wake at 2:00 pm, preferably before 6:00 pm. The afternoon is also a good time to sneak in at least 10 minutes of sun without glasses or suntan lotion to help rev you up.
- Have your largest meal of the day, while seated and relaxed, between the Pitta hours of 10:00 pm and 2:00 am. Then do not eat again until you wake up the next day.)
LIVING OUT OF SYNC WITH NATURE
Even following these patterns, living out of sync with nature is bound to take a toll on your nervous system and your general health eventually. It is important to get back into a normal cycle as soon as possible.
Until you can, though, stick to a routine as much as possible and consider incorporating the following assists into your life:
- Get adequate sunshine (a bare minimum of 10 minutes each day!) Sunlight is an environmental stimuli that helps regulate natural sleep and wake cycles in the body.
- To support the nervous system and deeper sleep, consider taking adaptogenic Ayurvedic herbs, like Ashwagandha and Bacopa Monnieri (Brahmi) before bed.
- Meditation and breathing techniques, when used in moderation, also support relaxation and better stress management by engaging relaxing brain waves and the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us rest and digest.
- And on occasion, getting a Shirodhara (or Mental Restoration Treatment at Positively Ayurvedic) helps to reboot your pineal gland for better control of temperature and sleep and wake cycles.
- Being out of sync with nature can deplete your vitality (Ojas). One of the best ways to rebuild Ojas is to spend time in nature. Also, schedule time to be still each day and allow your nervous system to revamp. 5:00 – 6:00 in the morning and evening are natural time slots for stillness and solitude.
- Lastly, some people find it helpful to take melatonin tablets to assist with a variety of conditions, including sleeping disorders in the blind, delayed sleep phase disorder, jet lag, insomnia, and shift work sleep disorders. Side effects tend to be mild, but, as always, be sure to check with your physician regarding possible interactions with other medications you may be taking.
For supportive diet (and food) recommendations to assist with cortisol and melanin production in the body, see Foods to Help Get You Back in Sync.
The sole purpose of this article is to provide information about the tradition of Ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have an acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or email Karen Callahan at firstname.lastname@example.org.