At Dawn They Sleep: Guide to Surviving Overnights

Posted: Jul 2, 2012
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As I stated in my previous blog, overnights are hard. Health problems and cancer are very prevalent among overnight workers, sadly, and it's been suggested that if you work overnights you shouldn't work them for long periods of time. But the reality is that someone must work them. So how can we survive working overnight shifts and make the best of it? Here are some tips that I've found work for me, and also some tips found from research I've done (that I may or may not follow so well).

1. Black-out curtains: Easy to make with black fabric from a fabric store, but Target also has a brand of curtains made for this purpose.

2. Earplugs: I recommend ear plugs especially if you are a light sleeper or if you have housemates. 

3. Explaining to family and friends: Your new lifestyle isn't something people just understand, so explain exactly what this means to your life, and ask them not to call you during the day or have guests over. They won’t get it but it still may help. Also, don’t sleep with your cell phone next to you!

4. Vitamin D: Vitamin D is synthesized in humans in the skin from exposure to the sun. A lack of vitamin D has been linked to depression and musculoskeletal problems. You may need to see a doctor to get the dose that is right for you. Other vitamins/supplements may help as well.

5. Eat healthy: Your body naturally produces more insulin at night so you may have the urge to carb out. Don’t. Find an eating schedule that works for you and be consistent with it. Make sure to eat lots of fruits and veggies and try not to eat too many carb, sugar, or fat-heavy foods, your body will just store them. I got really into juicing fruits and veggies recently, and this has also become a replacement ritual for caffeine. It gives me a nice boost  in the “morning”. I've also found that I feel more dehydrated while working overnights, so I have a water bottle I bring to work and I always keep one by my bed. 

6. Limit caffeine: This is a tricky one. If you must drink coffee, it is best to drink one cup in your “morning”  to wake up and no more. Drinking coffee or other caffeinated drinks throughout your shift may make it harder to sleep when you get home. Tea is a healthier alternative to coffee and it will not make you as dehydrated.

7. Lights: Some research suggests the use of UVB lighting or light boxes to aid in the production of Vitamin D, and relieve some of the depression from lack of sun exposure. Some hospitals may offer special lighting to overnight workers and light boxes are available on the market for purchase for this purpose. I have yet to try it. At one point in my overnight career though, I did try tanning. While it did make me feel better, the risk of skin cancer and the sharp contrast of tan to my natural pallor made it not worth it. 

8. Melatonin: Melatonin helps regulate circadian rhythm, your body produces more in darkness and tells it when to sleep. Being exposed to bright lights at night disrupts this cycle. Taking melatonin before sleeping, even if you are already tired, helps restore this cycle. 

9. Routine: Trying to stay on a consistent routine sleep/wake schedule as much as possible. I struggle with this.

10. Membership to a 24 hour gym: Exercise is crucial in life anyway. Don’t cut it out of your routine just because you work overnights. Plus, it boosts your energy level! This will also help with depression, and gives you something to do on your days off when you are awake at 4am and no one else is. 

11. Hobbies: Having things to do at home late at night and also things you can do out in the world to keep you connected to society. I like to make jewelry at home on my days off, but I also play music with friends and we are able to practice in the evenings. Bowling leagues, dance classes, book clubs etc. also tend to happen in the evening.

12. Wear sunglasses on the commute home: Sunlight may trigger your circadian rhythm. Also, avoiding running errands or staying up after shifts.

13. Take naps: If you have things you need to do during daylight hours after your work shift, I would suggest going home, sleeping for 4-5 hours and then getting up and doing them. A nap later on in the day or early evening will help you feel more rested for your overnight shift that night.