Dear Dr. Garner,
I am a nurse who has been in pretty good shape all my life. Lately, I have been doing the overnight shift (not something I asked for). My problem is that in two months time, I have gone from 140 lbs. to 155 lbs.
Do you think it is a coincidence, or could it be related to my new working hours?
Unfortunately, I am not in a position to quit my job, so please don’t tell me that is the solution.
I love your column and TV show and thank you for all your advice.
Dear Graveyard Shift,
Thank you for your good wishes. I was just discussing this issue with my good friend and colleague Dr. Antonio Mascatello. Many studies have been done which identify an association between night shift work and weight gain.
Recently, a study from Harvard noted that women who had an irregular work schedule that included night shifts, had significantly increased risk of diabetes — as much as 60%.
It is thought that the reason for the weight gain is due to the following:
1. The body’s natural clock is confused and it makes hormones that create a craving for food, particularly high in fat.
2. The food available to night-shift workers usually comes from vending machines or fast-food restaurants, both of which contain high fat and salt.
3. Sleep deprivation which occurs with night-shift work causes the brain to send out signals that make the body crave sugary foods.
4. The body’s metabolism slows at night, which limits one’s ability to burn fat and increase lean muscle.
5. Lack of sleep triggers the release of a hormone known as cortisol. This hormone causes the build-up of fat in the belly region and is also a factor in developing high blood pressure and diabetes.
I realize that many people who work the night shift have no choice. The good news is that are things that can be done short of quitting the job.
1. Plan what you eat for the shift. The plan should include substantial portions of food every four hours and a snack.
2. Good foods to eat are low fat and high fiber, and include grains, bread, fruits, and low-fat dairy products.
3. Don’t have a heavy meal before going to bed, as a full stomach makes sleep difficult.
4. Take a short nap, no more than 30 minutes before your shift. This increases brain alertness. A nap of more than 30 minutes makes you feel groggy.
5. Stick to a routine when working night shifts so that you go to sleep at the same time and eat meals at the same time. Sleeping from morning to afternoon is best.
6. Keep the room as quiet as possible and have shades that create a dark room. Turn off your phone and computer.
I am often asked how much sleep an adult needs.
The average adult needs in the range of seven to nine hours of sleep. You can do an experiment at home to see how much you need. Select a period of four days when you can sleep as long as you want. The hours of sleep you receive the fourth night should be the hours necessary for you.
In summary, nighttime shift work has hazards associated with it. These hazards are related to lack of sleep, increased weight gain, increased incidence of diabetes, and even an increase in cancer. It is important to devise methods to address the problems that are expected, such as the weight gain. It is important to sleep at the same time, morning to afternoon. The avoidance of caffeinated drinks and alcohol is necessary as these further interfere with the hormones the body creates.
One who works the night shift must pay careful attention to stay fit, both physically and mentally.
I wish you and your family well. Thank you for your interesting question and have a Merry Christmas.[hr] Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Ch. 97 Time Warner and Ch. 30 Cablevision.