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How to Survive the Night Shift

By: Benna Crawford

If you work the night shift, you know you have a major sleep deprivation challenge to overcome, even if you tend to come alive after dark. According to a study published by the Sleep Medical Clinics, the risk of medical errors for night-shift workers compounds on successive nights – up to 35% by the fourth night. Working nights affects your health, your heart and your weight. The good news is you can combat drowsiness and daytime insomnia with some of these simple time-tested tricks.

Coffee, Coffee, Coffee

Keep a fresh carafe of coffee brewed and drink it strategically. Caffeinated beverages improve alertness, but they take about 20 to 35 minutes to kick in, so you should drink coffee before, not after, you start to lose steam. Taper off as the shift winds down, and plan for no coffee during the five hours before you go to sleep.

Blood Sugar Blues

Eat a healthy meal before your shift and graze on smart snacks throughout the night to keep your blood sugar in balance. Dried fruit, granola bars, nuts and vegetables are good choices, while soda and other sweets are not. Start work with a low-fat, complex-carbs and high-protein meal to provide endurance fuel and prevent yourself from grabbing a poor choice in the cafeteria. Keep a supply of drinking water and healthy snacks on hand throughout your shift to head off dehydration and fatigue.

Essential Zzzzzs

Even if you use your free hours to run errands or spend time with your family, make sure you make sleeping a priority. Stock up on sleep the night before you start a shift and after you get off work. Create conditions and rituals to help you fall asleep and stay asleep – whether it’s using blackout curtains, a sleep mask, a white noise machine or ear plugs.

Fitness Fatigue Fighter

If you hit a slump during your shift, sprint down an empty hallway or on a well-lit path outside for about 100 yards. You’ll boost heart rate, circulation and body temperature, and get more blood to your flagging brain. According to the National Sleep Association, 4 a.m. is the darkest hour, so plan a break around then to refresh your body and mind. Also, don't schedule the dullest duties for that time or you might nod off over your paperwork.

Staying Alert and Sharp

We are photosensitive creatures so we wake up in the light and sleep in the dark. Not you. So lighten up at work to trick your mind into alertness. Turn on bright lights in the office or invest in a small, portable light box, which mimics sunlight and triggers daylight endorphins.
When your shift is over, stay alert to avoid drowsy accidents. Opening the car windows and blasting the radio is good – for about one minute – but not effective in the long run. So, look into starting a carpool or taking public transportation. If you've balanced your energy evenly throughout your shift, then drive home normally at the end of your "day."

Stick to Your Schedule

On your days off, follow the rhythms of your work hours to avoid disrupting your nightshift schedule. Coordinate your work schedule with family or social time so you are available for errands, meals and activities around – not during – your daytime downtime. That might call for the ritual of weekend brunches with your significant other or the kids, or a late show on a weekend with your BFF. You don't have to be a hermit, but don't make the night shift harder on yourself than it has to be.

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in "USA Today," the "San Francisco Chronicle," "The New York Times," and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has worked in executive management for global advertising and marketing firms, in finance industry regulation, as an educator, and as head of her own successful small business for 15 years.
References Medical Economics: Starting a Practice 5-6 Months Out: Office Design and Supplies Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases March 2006: Hand Sanitizer Alert

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