If you're among the one in five North Americans who work a night shift, swing shift or rotating shift, you may enjoy easy traffic, quiet phones and absent bosses. But those schedules pose potential risks to your health: Depression, weight gain, stomach trouble and irritability are common complaints, not to mention fertility problems or breast, prostate and colon cancers. And here's the latest news: Add heart attacks and strokes.
Seems that whether you're a doctor (our profession has been getting some "burnout" press lately), nurse, factory worker, policeman or call-center employee, gearing up while the rest of the world winds down throws off your body clock. That messes with hormone levels and disrupts the natural rhythm of many of your body's systems. Normally, your heart rate, metabolism and brain go into slow-down mode after dark.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to reduce the toll that your work schedule can take on you. Making sure you clock in to them will provide you with a bonus at the end of every day: You'll be happier, healthier and younger!
Here's what you can do to get your life (and your ticker) tickin' along smoothly.
» No. 1: Embrace your topsy-turvy schedule. Sidestep most of shift work's negative sides by adopting a consistent get-up-and-go-to-sleep schedule, seven days a week. And try to keep your shift-work hours unchanged from week to week. Flipping back and forth can place enormous stress on your body and spirit! If you have to work a rotating shift, rotate forward (i.e., 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. this week, 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. next week, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. after that).
» No. 2: Turn night into day. Set your daily habits and activities so they mirror what you'd do if you were working during the daylight hours: Socialize with co-workers, get active during your break (walk around and bust a few aerobic moves, like marching in place, crunches, etc.). Keep lights turned up to daytime brightness. And sip a cup of coffee or tea as you start your shift. Hey, you'd grab a cup in the morning! But don't drink any past the halfway point of your shift.
» No. 3: Downshift stress. Working overnight hours raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can fuel everything from heart attacks to headaches, immune-system problems to chronic pain. Burn it off by exercising before you go to work (exercising afterward could make sleep more difficult). And make time for your family and friends. One factor in shift-work tension is loneliness, so share meals with your family, even if your breakfast is their dinner. Meditation promotes relaxation and dispels tension. RealAge.com has simple directions to get you started.
» No. 4: Eat sleepy foods before bed. Whole grains will help you snooze; make them a big part of your last meal before turning in -- they're sleep-friendly. (Your first two meals should have lower-carb foods such as lean proteins, good fats and veggies to help you feel more mentally alert.)
» No. 5: Set the stage for sleep. The hardest part of shift work can be falling asleep when the sun's up. When you go outside on your way home, wear dark sunglasses so morning light can't reset -- and foul up -- your internal clock. Then, follow a relaxing bedtime ritual: Take a shower, do a few stretches, try progressive relaxation exercises (go from toes to nose, tensing and relaxing your muscles as you breathe slowly and evenly in and out) and drift off. And make sure your bedroom is nighttime dark or wear an eye mask. Use earplugs if there's disturbing noise. And switch off your cellphone and beeper.
» No. 6: Make sure to get seven to eight continuous hours of shut-eye. Your body functions best after a long, solid sleep, rather than a couple of long naps. Get tough with yourself and your family about your sleep time. Most shift workers get two to three hours less sleep a night than their daytime counterparts.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Dr. Mike Roizen is chief medical officer at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. For more information, go to realage.com.