What Not to Eat When Working the Night Shift

By Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom, contributor

November 25, 2014 - Looking for the right food to get through those late-night shifts? Some otherwise-healthy choices deserve a second look, especially as they may impact your sleep and your long-term health. Understanding your body’s circadian rhythm is essential to success as a night-shift nurse, and a new study is shedding light on the relationship between iron-rich foods and the liver’s “sleep clock.”

Judith A. Simcox, PhD, a University of Utah postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry and lead author of the study published in Diabetes online, explains that each organ and tissue system in the body has its own unique circadian rhythm. When one clock is disrupted, it can create a domino effect in terms of unwanted symptoms, illnesses and disease.

Understanding circadian clocks

“One of the things I started coming across in my research was the fact that circadian rhythm shifts are associated not only with diabetes and metabolic syndrome, but with cancer as well,” Simcox said. “There has been a lot of research done on why shift workers have What Not to Eat When Working the Night Shifthigher rates of diabetes and cancer, and what a lot of people have found is that it is eating out of synch with daily cycles that causes these conditions.”

Simcox’s mother has been a night-shift nurse for over 30 years, and her mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer several years ago spurred her interest in this important research topic.

Although this study was performed on mice, Simcox and her team are looking to move into human studies in the near future to better understand how shift workers such as nurses may be affected.

“What we found is that when mice were fed dietary iron, it was able to seep into the circadian rhythm by increasing cellular heme levels. Heme is a component in red blood cells and it’s also necessary in all of our cells to carry oxygen and bind protein,” Simcox said. “So heme binds to circadian protein and makes it function at a more efficient level.”

This increased activity is healthy when it occurs in the liver’s natural clock cycle, but if it happens at a time that is out of synch with the circadian clock, such as during a night shift, it could result in abnormal blood glucose levels, Simcox explained.

Foods that night-shift nurses should avoid

It’s important to note that Simcox and the dietary community in general do not suggest eliminating iron-rich foods altogether. The key is eating these types of foods at the appropriate time depending on when you are working.

“It’s not really a list of ‘no-nos’ and it’s not the idea of not eating these foods at all,” she said. “It’s not eating them at night time, but eating them in the morning and during the day. The idea from this study is that you would want individuals to eat low-iron foods during the night and high-iron foods during the day to keep the rhythms synchronized.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, foods rich in iron include: red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, beans, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas.

In addition to avoiding foods laden with iron during the night, Samantha Hua, a holistic health coach and CEO of Happy Food Health, a company that specializes in nutrition counseling and healthy cooking lessons, suggests that nurses avoid processed foods and caffeinated beverages such as coffee.

“I work with a lot of nurses and I see that they have all of this knowledge, but the emotional end is missing and they are not feeling good because that piece is missing,” Hua said. “What I tell my nurses to avoid is the processed foods. When food is processed and high in sugar, we crash and we don’t get that level of nourishment that our body needs for energy and sustainability.”

Hua urges health care professionals to avoid energy bars, sugar overloads and those easy, grab-and-go processed options.

Chew on this

Fresh fruits, including apples and bananas, are readily available snacks that Simcox suggests as solid choices for night-shift nurses that are fairly low in iron and high in fiber.

“Loading on fruits and veggies is key,” Hua agreed. “Listen to your body, because we all need different things and someone who just grabs fruit may actually need to combine that with nuts in order to be fully satisfied.”

Hua also stresses the importance of logging solid sleep time in addition to a good nutrition plan, adding, “Nurses are such givers and when you are always giving, you may not be focusing on self-care and healthy eating.”

Simcox and her team found that high iron levels, when fed at the appropriate time, led to lower glucose and fewer cases of diabetes. “It is when it is dyssynchronous that it causes diabetes,” she said.

These findings underline the importance of consuming iron-rich foods during the appropriate times, and not eliminating them completely from the diet.

“Be careful with what you are eating and when,” Simcox concluded. “It is important to try and eat during the daytime, even though you are trying to sleep.”

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