When it comes to health complaints amongst shift workers, one of the most common things that I hear from my clients is digestive discomfort. This can come in the form of constipation, bloating or various other irritable bowel type symptoms.
Now to be honest, there could be a myriad of reasons as to why you may be experiencing digestive distress, but today I want to talk about one strategy that’s … well, often overlooked if you work 24/7 – yet it can make a MASSIVE difference to how your gut feels and functions.
And if comes down to asking yourself “when (and how often) am I eating?”
Because when we work 24/7, we tend to eat 24/7 which can set us up for a whole world of pain – in a number of ways!
In other words, although we may be awake at 2am (well I use the term “awake” loosely here!), it doesn’t mean we should be eating at 2am, because of our innate biological rhythms as a human being.
I’ll use an analogy to help explain what I mean.
Let’s say you’re driving along the road at 2am, and you see that parts of the road is closed ahead of you. There’s police and roadworks all set up. It’s completely closed – no one is allowed access so they can work on resurfacing the bitumen on the road when traffic is least congested.
It’s important they do this, because when cars are constantly driving over the road – it contributes to holes which need to be repaired.
The same applies to our gut.
When we’re continually giving it food to digest and break down 24/7 (especially heavy, and highly refined and processed foods), the delicate cells, mucous membranes and microvilli on the surface of the gut can’t heal.
This healing process, which is super important for our health, is known as autophagy.
Autophagy occurs when we take a break from eating or fast for a while, allowing the “intestinal highway” so-to-speak to repair.
Because you cannot repair a highway, if the traffic is moving.
Allowing the digestive tract to heal is super important because these holes can lead to inflammation and set off a whole cascade of issues – not only in our gut, but everywhere.
Quite simply, the gut is the foundation of our health, and giving it time to rest and repair is imperative.
Now I know you might be thinking – “does this mean if I work night shift Audra, you don’t want me to eat during the night?”
Not at all, although fasting during the night does work for some people, and studies have shown that restricting food intake to daylight hours helps to syncronise the central body clock in our brain, with those clocks found in the gut.
This helps the body to perform and function like a beautifully orchestrated symphony – instead of like a band that is out of tune!!
I think you get where I’m coming from :-).
So instead of not eating at all during the night, what I’m really suggesting is that you be mindful of:
1. The amount and/or portion sizes of your meals during the night because food is not broken down and digested in the same way at night, as it does during the day.
2. Being conscious of what you’re eating at “irregular times”, for example at 2am, because the digestive system naturally slows down during the night based on our innate circadian biology or circadian rhythms.
Foods that are great to eat at night include soups, small serves of slow-cooked casseroles, smoothies, yoghurt etc. because they will provide little burden on your digestive tract which will ultimately lead to less digestive discomfort.
A welcome relief for anyone working 24/7.
Asher, C & Sassone-Corsi, P 2015, ‘Time for food: the intimate interplay between nutrition, metabolism, and the circadian clock’, Cell, vol. 161, no. 1, pp. 84-92.
Boden, G, Ruiz, J, Urbain, J & Chen, X 1996, ‘Evidence for a circadian rhythm of insulin secretion’, American Journal of Physiology, vol. 271, pp. 246-252.
Konturek, P, Brzozowski, T & Konturek, S 2011, ‘Gut clock: implications of circadian rhythms in the gastrointestinal tract’, Journal of Physiology & Pharmacology, vol. 62, no. 2, pp. 139-150.