Whether you’re a flight attendant, a nurse or a miner, studies show that shift work, especially at night, is linked with increased insulin resistance, a higher body mass index, more digestive problems, lowered immunity and depression. Longer term, shift work can raise the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart attack and stroke.
How nutrition can help
Research on chronobiology (the study of circadian or body rhythms) has shown that you have at least 20 “clocks” in your body that need to stay synchronised for optimum health and wellbeing. These clocks are located in your genes and they coordinate “teamwork” ranging from your intestines to your liver and brain. Eating late at night, especially refined carbohydrate foods, disrupts these body clocks; unlike rats, we’re designed to consume food during the day. Everyone is more insulin sensitive in the morning and more insulin resistant at night.
Eat three meals at regular times over a 24-hour period. Eating at irregular times can upset your body clocks. If you work nights, eat your dinner later in the afternoon or early evening, have only a light midnight meal of vegetable soup or salad (avoid iron-rich foods like meat) and end with a hearty breakfast. The clock in your liver regulates blood glucose levels. Eating iron-rich foods at night may make your liver clock get out of sync with the master clock in your brain.
Plan your meals ahead. On your days off, cook in bulk and freeze portions. Eating right can help reset a disturbed circadian clock system. Base meals on high-fibre plant foods such as legumes, barley, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Think dhal on a bed of fluffy quinoa or a mixed bean salad.
Avoid processed foods containing refined starches and sugars, such as biscuits and chips. While these may give you a temporary boost, they can disrupt your body clocks, particularly if they’re eaten late at night.
Hydrate yourself well. Drink plenty of water in between meals and avoid alcohol.