The high cost of circadian rhythm disruption and what you can do about it

By Dr Pushpa Chandra

Do you fall asleep during a night shift or when you are working late? Do you suffer from insomnia during the day? Staying awake at night and trying to sleep during the day goes against evolution, adversely affecting all biological functions as they continually try to adjust. We have naturally evolved to rest, heal and restore our bodies by sleeping at night and breaking that pattern comes with a cost. As a nurse who spent 27 years working shifts, I can attest to the fact that we never ‘get used to’ working at night and disrupting our natural circadian rhythm. Fatigue, daytime sleepiness, insomnia, digestive disorders, irritability, depression, anxiety, poor memory, reduced mental focus, and cognitive impairment are unavoidable.

Sleep disruption can have dire health consequences

Shift work has also been linked to many health problems, including breast, ovarian and prostate cancers, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, melanoma, heart disease and pregnancy problems. These health effects make women shift workers, in particular, far more likely to take early retirement due to ill health. It is also well known that workplace accidents that result in injuries, as well as mistakes, are much more likely to occur at night than in daytime hours.

This can explain, in part, the reason that in Canada alone, research estimates that approximately 70,000 patients a year experience serious injury as a result of treatments. It is estimated that preventable ‘adverse events’ account for as many as 23,000 deaths across Canada annually.

A conspiracy of silence, an untold cost

The numbers of accidents and deaths and the cost to industry and society in general are only estimated since not all mistakes are reported, usually because of fears of repercussions or job security. According to a report in the National Post, one nurse said of mistakes at work: “We do turn a blind eye and walk away. There is a lot of lying, there’s a lot of cover-up.”

The reasons shift work promotes these kinds of problems are essentially because humans are not designed to work at night. If we disrupt our natural cycles by working at night and sleeping in the day, the body simply cannot adjust and operate optimally.

Fatigue and ‘brain fog’ sets in at certain times of the night when shift workers are trying to stay alert but their body should be in a state of deep sleep. It’s the same as jet lag. Typically, it is in the early hours that the most mistakes and injuries occur. Indeed, some of the world’s best-known disasters happened because of night shift fatigue and lack of alertness and concentration. Mistakes made at 1.23am led to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 1979 Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown happened shortly after 4am.

Not only can doctors and nurses make mistakes at these times, but they are also a danger to themselves. It is now known that night shift workers are more dangerous than drunk drivers when driving home from night shift. A recent survey in the UK discovered that 40% of doctors fell asleep at the wheel. Many were injured and some lost their lives.

Many shift workers feel unable to speak up about the problems they face, for fear that any sign of weakness may reflect on them. So, they soldier on and “suck it up” – until something happens.

Maintaining alertness, getting restorative sleep

I was a shift worker in ICU at a Children’s Hospital for over 25 years and I experienced several co-workers who got breast cancer and died young, or who had to take long term sick leave. During my time as a nurse, I was able to overcome the effects of shift work and remain healthy using my knowledge of natural herbs and supplements, to the extent that I regularly participated in ultra-marathons and attended educational courses while shift working. That’s why I have now dedicated my life to helping shift workers mitigate the affects of circadian rhythm disruption.

You cannot fight the circadian rhythm, but you can take steps with lifestyle, diet and natural products, to stay healthy and prolong your life. Here are my 9 top tips for keeping yourself healthy on night shift or if you regularly work late hours:

1) Let food be your medicine. Discipline yourself and remember that healthy, nutritious food is all the more essential when your body is under stress from working shifts. Don’t get seduced by snacks in vending machines. Cook healthy food on your days off and take home-cooked meals to work. Make sure you include plenty of protein! It’s an indispensible nutrient and a source of vital amino acids required for all biological processes.

2) Eat tyrosine-rich food. Jump-start the brain with seafood, soy, organic grass-fed meats, eggs and organic yoghurt. They are all rich in tyrosine, which helps to perk up your brain.

3) Go nuts! Raw Brazil nuts are high in selenium—a potent mineral that detoxifies your system and is key to cancer prevention. Pumpkin, chia and sunflower seeds, as well as pistachios, are also excellent nutrient-dense foods. Avoid peanuts—they are especially susceptible to a mold that produces a mycotoxin called aflatoxin (a carcinogen that has been shown to cause liver cancer in rats and, presumably, in humans).

4) Be berry smart. Blueberries increase concentration and memory by increasing blood flow to the brain. Eat a handful every day—in yogurt, with some nuts or in a protein smoothie.

5) Avoid eating too much, especially carb-rich food, and getting a  ‘food coma’. Less is more, when it comes to the size of your meal. Small, frequent meals sustain energy and reduce weight gain. Over-eating and consuming too many carbs make you susceptible to hyperglycemia and an insulin surge, which can lead to diabetes.

6) Avoid sugar. Sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine! It provides a short boost of energy, followed by a crash, causing excessive fatigue, irritability and a craving for another quick fix. Sugar also causes your insulin to spike, which causes your body to retain more adipose (fat) tissue. In other words, sugar makes you fat!

7) Glow with low-glycemic-index foods. Organic apples, grapefruit, humous, chickpeas, legumes, lentils, oranges, steel-cut oatmeal and seaweed are all low-glycemic foods, which raise your blood sugar much more slowly than those that are high on the index.  (Note that carrots are a high-glycemic food, especially when cooked.)

8) Avoid caffeine.  Everybody knows that caffeine makes you more alert and clearheaded, right? It may do so temporarily, but a cup of coffee only gives you a wake-up jolt because it triggers a stress response. Caffeine sends your adrenal glands into overdrive, pumping out a stress hormone that generates a temporary feeling of alertness, followed by exhaustion and decreased focus. The sleep-disrupting effects of caffeine may occur up to 8 hours after consumption.

9) Drink more water. Did you know that the human body (including the brain) is 70% water? Water is our most abundant and vital medicine, required in ample amounts by every cell of the body.  Yet its importance is often overlooked, and most people are chronically dehydrated without realizing it. Not drinking enough water can create brain fog, lightheadedness, fatigue, irritability, digestive problems and many other issues. Staying properly hydrated is vital to good health and optimal functioning, and most adults require one or two liters of pure water a day.

Dr Pushpa Chandra is a naturopathic doctor and CEO of