Nutritional and Lifestyle Strategies for Shift Workers

November 3, 2019


We have all at some point in time, felt the effects of a busy work schedule. Whether it be fatigue from staying up until 1am in the morning to finish that business presentation or managing multiple staff calling in sick during flu season. Some workplace sectors, however, have the added stressor of shift work.


Today’s society is increasingly focused upon a 24/7 economy, so the expectation to work all hours of the day continues to increase. To date, nearly 1.5 million Australians are employed in shift work, representing approximately 16% of the working population. Although such a diversification of working time contributes to the improvement of human life through the movement of goods, services an employment, there is often a negative interference with a worker’s health and wellbeing.


There is growing evidence linking shift work to negative health, safety and performance outcomes. Circadian rhythm disruption, inadequate and poor-quality sleep are thought to contribute to these adverse effects.


What is the circadian rhythm?

Our circadian rhythm is our 24-hour cycle of physiological processes within our body. These rhythms are endogenously created (from within our bodies) or can be modulated by external cues such as temperature and sunlight. Our circadian rhythms are not only important in determining our sleeping and eating patterns, but our brain activity, hormone production, cell regeneration, metabolism and various other biological processes are carried out within this daily cycle.  

For a non-shift worker, alertness is high during the day and early afternoon, being sustained by the circadian activation of biological rhythms and by the restoration given by a good night’s sleep. It progressively decreases during late afternoon and night hours. For a shift worker, they are sleeping during the normal rising phase of our biological rhythms which sustains wakefulness, making it difficult to fall asleep, sleep longer and achieve regenerative REM sleep.

Long term shift work can also cause implications for hormone production. Circadian rhythm disturbance often causes hormonal disturbances of several important hormones including our sleepy hormone melatonin and our fight or flight hormone cortisol. An increase in these two hormones leads to an increased risk of metabolic disorders such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.


Emerging research now suggests that long term exposure to sleep displacement alters the composition of the gut microbiome. In short, our microbiome is the name given to the bacterial populations living within our intestine that play a role in many bodily functions ranging from digesting and absorbing nutrients to immune regulation and brain function. The composition and regulation of the microbiome is controlled by a person’s eating times and the foods consumed. If eating times are disrupted, then an imbalance (dysbiosis) in our microbiome occurs. Consequently, a person may develop intestinal conditions or altered immune responses.


In addition to causing problems on a cellular and hormonal level, shift work can also impede a workers daily functioning. The misalignment of the circadian rhythm can lead to cognitive impairment and reduced performance efficiency.


What can be done to reduce the severity of the effects of shift work?

The good news is, it is not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of things that can be implemented to reduce the severity of these effects on the body. Having a well-balanced nutritional intake during shift work periods is vital and is easier to do than you may think.

Nutrition tips

  • Consume slow cooked meals or soups as they are easier to digest and place a minimal burden on the digestive system

  • Consume foods that contain healthy fats and protein. Not only will this keep you feeling fuller for longer, but it will help curb those late-night cravings. Include foods such as eggs, avocado, walnuts and Greek yoghurt

  • Avoid refined and processed foods. As much as we would like to reach for the packet of lollies to give that boost of energy, its important that we steer clear of them. At night, the pancreas is not working at its optimal level so if we overload it with sugary foods, our blood glucose levels will skyrocket.

  • Avoid or limit stimulants such as coffee or energy drink. Its fine to have a one cup of coffee or tea to keep you alert during your shift however do not consume caffeinated drinks 3-4 hours before you intend to sleep.

  • Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol before you sleep

  • Speaking of sleep, try consuming some sliced turkey, cottage cheese or sunflower seeds before your sleep. These all contain the essential amino acid tryptophan. Our happy hormone serotonin and our sleepy hormone melatonin are both synthesised by tryptophan.

  • Keep hydrated! This may sound like a no brainer; however, we all forget at times. Dehydration can contribute to feelings of fatigue and poor concentration, so keep those fluids up!

    What about lifestyle changes?

    Due to strenuous long shifts and a lack of sleep, shift workers eating and exercise habits tend to suffer. Many workers skip meals, eat at irregular times and opt for the easier yet unhealthy food options. There are plenty of lifestyle changes that can be implemented to assist a person through this period.

    Lifestyle tips

  • Prep your meals! Set aside a few hours before your shift work period begins and prep away. You can purchase compartment meal prep containers from the supermarket.  Having healthy homemade meals on hand will reduce the likelihood of binging on unhealthy foods. Ensure that you always have a protein, healthy fats, grains and some veggies/greens in your meals.

  • Practice mindful eating by ensuring you sit down and be present when you eat your meals. This will not only promote better digestion but eating on the go or in front of a computer can encourage mindless snacking habits.

  • Practice proper sleep hygiene by ensuring that you stay away from any electronic devices at least 1 hour before bed such as television and mobile phones. The blue light emitted from these devices disrupts our circadian rhythm. Ensure that your bedroom is quiet, dark, and at a comfortable temperature. Utilise blinds, curtains, sleep masks and ear plugs if required. 

  • Set aside time to exercise. Whether it be a 20-minute walk with your dog, a 30 minute Pilates class or or a 1 hour weights session. It is important to find the workout time that fits into you schedule. Try exercising before and after your shifts to determine the best time of day.

If you follow these recommendations and focus upon nourishing your body with high quality nutrients, you will be giving your body the best possible opportunity to prevent illness as well as function at an optimal level during shift work periods.



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