Sleep. If you’ve ever worked shift work before, then you’d be very much aware that this type of nourishment is the “food” that we crave the most, however often eludes many who work 24/7.
This can lead to poor dietary choices, as we fall into the trap of feeling “too tired” to eat well.
However this can be a bit of a Catch-22.
This is because not only can disrupted sleep affect your nutritional intake, but if you eat poorly it can also affect your sleep.
A bit of a double edged sword for anyone working 24/7.
Now given shift workers get on average 2-3 hours less sleep than our 9-5 counterparts (staggering when you compound this over weeks, months and years), sleep nutrition really needs to be given the utmost priority when working in an occupation that requires you to run on limited sleep.
I mean we’ve all experienced it.
We jump into bed, spend hours tossing and turning, maybe eyes wide open, staring up at the ceiling or perhaps at the alarm clock perched beside our bedside table, almost “smiling” at us, counting down the hours until we have to get up again.
This stress and anxiety about not being able to sleep, can certainly derail a decent night (or day) of rest even further.
So what can we do to enhance our sleep when we work irregular hours?
Well first and foremost, is by ensuring that our behaviour, and what we eat before bed is going to either enhance our sleep, or at the very least, avoid disrupting it.
My Top 5 Sleep Nutrition Tips are as follows:
- Eat a small meal or snack before bed – if your blood sugar drops too low whilst you’re sleeping, it can cause the body to produce adrenalin, a stress hormone that is part of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ stress response which can actually wake you up. This hormone release is part of the body’s instinctual survival mechanism, telling you that it needs something to eat, however it’s a signal that we really don’t want to get when we’re in the middle of trying to catch up on some much needed sleep!
- Avoid drinking too much liquid 1- 2 hours before bed – drinking large amounts of liquids before bed can lead to excess urination during the night (or day – depending on your shift) which is not ideal when our body would much prefer to stay snuggled under the covers.
- Include more foods that contain vitamin B6 – otherwise known as pyridoxine, is a water-soluble vitamin that aids in the production of melatonin, our ‘sleepy hormone’ that is a necessary part of the biochemical pathway to instigate sleep. Foods rich in vitamin B6 include chickpeas, ricotta cheese, milk, eggs, almonds, avocado, salmon, spinach and sweet potato.
- Eat foods that are rich in magnesium (avocados, bananas, legumes, green leafy vegetables, nuts, and seeds such as flax, pumpkin and chia) and calcium (yoghurt, almonds, green leafy vegetables, tahini and seeds such as poppy, sesame and chia) as they help the body to relax, and subsequently fall asleep.
- Nourish your gut bugs with plant based foods – your gut consists of a diverse array of microorganisms that contribute to your health and well-being however are dependent on fibre as their source of food, which are found in plant-based foods. So if you are eating a diet high in processed foods (that contain little fibre), you are quite literally starving your gut bacteria preventing them from undertaking many important functions, one of which includes ensuring the gut maintains an abundant supply of melatonin. Melatonin is the most fundamentally important hormone when it comes to instigating our sleep, and our gut, or gastrointestinal tract actually contains at least 400 times more melatonin than the pineal gland highlighting the importance of maintaining a healthy balance of gut flora.
So please don’t underestimate the importance of nutrition when it comes to your sleep. Given shift workers ‘sleep reserves’ are already quite low (and sometimes near empty), ensuring the body has the right nourishment to instigate sleep will go a long way in improving both the quality and quantity of your sleep, which is definitely a good thing when you work 24/7!
Chen, C, Fichna, J, Bashashati, M, Li, Y & Storr, M 2011, ‘Distribution, function and physiological role of melatonin in the lower gut’, World Journal of Gastroenterology, vol. 17, no. 34, pp. 3888-3898.