Working Nights?

I recently started a job which requires working nights. My co-worker practically inhales canned energy drinks to get through the shift. Are there any healthy alternatives or recipes for natural energy drinks?

– May 8, 2007

Working nights can be difficult and unhealthy. People who work nights or do shift work often experience symptoms much like those of jet lag. Because their work schedules are at odds with natural sleep-regulating cues, they may become very drowsy at work and then suffer from insomnia when they finally get to bed. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reports that night workers typically get less sleep than day time workers and that their sleep is less restful. Over time, this takes a toll. The NSF reports that lack of sleep is associated with irritability, impatience, anxiety, depression, and that night workers are more likely than day workers to suffer from heartburn, indigestion and other stomach problems, menstrual irregularities, colds, flu, weight gain, heart problems, and high blood pressure. They’re also at higher risk of workplace accidents and auto accidents driving back and forth to work.

I’m skeptical of claims that energy drinks can improve concentration. They’re loaded with caffeine and sugar – so much caffeine, in fact, that a Northwestern University study documented a surge in caffeine overdoses reported to a Chicago poison control center. In some cases, the overdoses required visits to hospital emergency rooms.

Unfortunately, you can’t be sure how much caffeine you’re getting from energy drinks. Some contain multiple sources; caffeine itself as well as guaraná, a small red fruit from a Brazilian shrub that has a high caffeine content. Guaraná may be listed on the label, but its caffeine content isn’t. A study at the University of Florida found that some energy drinks contain two to four times the amount of caffeine as a standard can of Coke, even though they’re not as large.

You’re most likely to feel alert and awake during your night shift when you’re getting adequate rest and sleep. The NSF suggests that night workers wear wraparound dark glasses on the way home from work to keep morning sunlight from activating the internal “daytime” clock. Some other tips from the NSF:

  • Go to sleep as soon as possible after work and maintain the same sleep schedule daily, even on your days off.
  • Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark (wear eye shades and ear plugs, if necessary, or invest in light blocking and sound absorbing curtains).
  • Avoid caffeine for at least five hours before bedtime.
  • Exercise after you sleep (if you exercise at work, do so at least three hours before you plan to go to bed).
  • Don’t leave the most tedious or boring tasks until the end of your shift when you’re most likely to feel drowsy (night workers hit their low point around 4 a.m.).
  • Take short breaks during your shift and try to exercise during your regular breaks (take a walk, shoot hoops, climb stairs).

While at work, skip the energy drinks and stick to green or white tea. Try relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation or yoga when you have trouble falling asleep after work. And if you can’t adjust to night-work, consider looking for a day job.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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