Biohacking Shift Work
Globalisation and our desire to have everything available 24-hours a day has significantly changed the way we work. Many of us are now doing shift work and working longer hours.
The problem with this is humans are diurnal animals which means we are wired to be active during the day and sleep at night.
Our sleep-wake cycle (also known as our circadian rhythm) is an internal 24-hour clock that tells us when to sleep and wake up.
This cycle is controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN for short. The SCN is located in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and uses external cues to synchronise and reset itself. One of the primary cues is light.
A low light level at night increases the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep by making us drowsy. When the sun comes up melatonin levels drop and cortisol, a stress hormone, is released to promote activity.
Shift work disrupts our sleep-wake cycle and is one of the main reasons why it can be so debilitating. Your body is set for one time period and you’re asking it to perform in another!
“Poor sleep suppresses the immune system, which significantly increases our risk of developing chronic diseases and inhibits recovery.”
Sleep and Wellbeing
If you work night shift (usually 10 pm to 6 am) you’ll need to switch to nocturnal behaviour, which is problematic because it conflicts with our diurnal wiring.
Working afternoon shift (usually 2 pm to 10 pm) may be easier provided you can sleep in and get 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep.
Working a rotating shift is particularly challenging, especially if the pattern changes frequently because our internal clock adjusts at a much slower rate – about 1 hour per day.
And even if you work regular patterns like 5-afternoon shifts or 5-night shifts, you’ll still need to switch back to days on rostered time off.
Tips for Shift Work
If you’re a shift worker or work unusual hours the following biohacking tips can help you sleep better:
1. Wind down before going to sleep. Avoid bright light, switch off electronic devices 1 hour prior to sleep and exercise after you wake up.
2. Avoid having a large meal, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol just before sleep. If you need caffeine, try to consume it early in your shift.
3. Setup your room to mimic conditions at night. A dark, cool, quiet room helps with the production of melatonin
4. Focus on consistently getting 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep. This will help you feel refreshed and increase your resistance to illness
5. Recharge with a power nap. Taking a 10 to 20-minute nap can provide an energy boost and improve mental performance
6. Be aware of your sleepiness and structure work accordingly. Adults usually feel sleepy between 1 to 3 pm and 2 to 4 am.
7. Payback your sleep debt at a rate of 50%. For example, if you lose 8 hours then payback 4 hours within a week.
“Our mental and physical wellbeing are closely linked. A decline in mental wellbeing can wear down physical wellbeing and vice versa.”
Sleep and Wellbeing