Shift Work Nutrition:

Why Timing Is Everything!

Beautiful young woman holding a plate with food, diet and time concept close up

As a fully fledged Clinical Nutritionist (wow, I can finally say that now after completing a Bachelor of Science degree last week), I have to say there’s certainly a lot of emphasis in our training on WHAT our clients are eating, which undeniably plays a huge role in our overall health and well-being.

In fact, it sounds ridiculously simply given food is designed to nourish us, and provide us with the right balance of macro and micronutrients to fuel us each day.

However, after spending 6 years submerged under textbooks and inhaling the contents of journal articles (yes, it took me a bit longer to complete a 3 year degree whilst working full-time) I was a little intrigued as to why the topic of food TIMING was never discussed throughout my degree.

But perhaps that’s because I was the only one in my class interested in the timing of food – which for a shift worker is extremely relevant.

More and more research is beginning to surface on the importance of WHEN we’re eating (otherwise known as chrononutrition), and how it’s just as important as WHAT we’re eating – if not more.

This is because the body’s physiological response to food can be completely different depending on the circadian phase or timing of the body.

By this I mean, the body responds to food intake differently – depending on the time of day.

Given we’re quite literally walking clocks governed by a master clock, the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN located in the brain, food timing can can be an incredibly important aspect to our health as this ‘master clock’ sends messages to other circadian clocks located in various cells throughout the body including those in the pancreas, liver and gastrointestinal tract.

And here lies the problem for shift workers.

Human beings are diurnal creatures – that is, we’re meant to be awake during the day, and asleep during the night.

But shift workers don’t operate this way.

In fact there are times when we do the complete opposite, that is sleep during the day and remain awake during the night – which also includes EATING in the same way.

And when we eat out of sync to our body’s natural circadian clock, it can disrupt our metabolism making us more susceptible to gut disturbances such as intestinal permeability and dysbiosis, along with enhancing our risk to developing a host of other chronic diseases.

According to Professor Fred Turek, a professor at Northwestern University, humans are the only species on earth that disobey their biological clocks.

A pretty compelling statement don’t you think?

Thanks to Thomas Edison and his trusty little invention – the humble light bulb, we have quite literally become ‘creatures of the night’, pushing our bodies to work against their natural biochemistry which unfortunately, is having detrimental effects on our health.

So whilst I may have digressed a little, the point to my blog post is this.

Working 24/7 often means eating 24/7 – which is not ideal.

Eating as close to a “normal” eating pattern as possible is something that shift workers need to try and aspire to, and whilst I completely understand this can be quite challenging at times, eating a calorie dense, nutritionally void hamburger at 3am is not going to win you any favours in the digestive stakes.

But if you can eat “dinner” as close to dinner time as possible, and avoid eating heavy meals during the night when your digestive system is quite literally sleeping, then you’re going to feel a whole lot better then if you “fuel up” on a hamburger, donut and a soft-drink at 3am.

Big shift working hugs,

Audra x

 

Reference:

Cagampang, F & Bruce, K 2012, ‘The role of the circadian clock system in nutrition and metabolism’, British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 108, pp. 381-382.