Is shift work affecting more than your sleep schedule?

Working shifts means working against your body's natural rhythms, which can affect your health. Shift workers are often less physically active and tend to have poor eating habits, which can cause digestive and stomach problems. Because of this, there are special nutritional considerations for those who work shifts.

Our bodies work according to a natural sleep-wake cycle, also referred to as a circadian rhythm, which controls our body temperature, our hormone levels, and the way our organs and body systems work – including the digestive system. You may eat in a rush, or have a tendency to snack on "junk" food at night, when the digestive system is working less efficiently. Because shift work affects your eating habits, shift workers often experience more digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, gas, indigestion, heartburn, stomach ulcers, or changes in appetite and weight (either gain or loss), than do workers who work during "normal" hours.

During the day, your body works more efficiently than at night. In the evening and at night, as your body temperature drops, your biological processes slow down, resulting in decrease in strength, alertness, and digestion. Your circadian rhythm is at its lowest point between 2 am and 4 am. Shift work creates a conflict between your body and its natural rhythm. After a night shift, you go home and want to sleep, but your body may think it is time to wake up.

Do you consume caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, iced tea, colas, or chocolate during work to stay alert and awake? Too much caffeine causes the kidneys to excrete excess water and leads to dehydration. Dehydration can cause feelings of fatigue – and it may lead to constipation. Keep a water bottle at your work station and drink regularly throughout your shift. Staying hydrated will make bowel movements softer and easier to pass.

And what about your food choices? When it's just you and the vending machine, it's easy to choose foods that are high in fat and sugar. But while snack food high in sugar can give you the jolt of energy you need, it will lead to feelings of fatigue later in the shift. And take-out food can be high in fat, which is difficult to digest and leads to weight gain. These low-fibre choices contribute to constipation. Carbohydrate-rich foods high in fibre and low in fat, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole-wheat breads, will help reduce digestive problems, especially constipation, and help you stay regular regardless of what time of day it is. Find healthy alternatives to the chocolate. Go for foods such as cereal or breakfast bars, apples, berries, carrot sticks and small cans of baked beans.

And when the lifestyle-change approach by itself does not provide the relief you need, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about other options that are available.

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