For those unaware, I work the night shift. I pull at least one 24-hr day a week (hitting hour 22 as I write this). After 6 years I’m used to it, but I won’t lie, it isn’t easy. First, there are the obvious sacrifices: a social life, conducting affairs during normal business hours, solid sleep schedule, daylight…
But there are other considerations, the biggest being your health. When you work the night shift, you eat like shit. Not only is good food typically unavailable (after all, this is when business caters to drunks chasing salty, greasy goodness), but you’re also trying to satisfy a need to stay alert. Because rule #1: no one gets completely used to sleeping during the day and being up all night, every night. I know people that have worked night shifts for decades and they struggle just as hard as everyone else when 4am rolls around.
The layman’s solution: caffeine.
Coffee, tea, energy drinks, maté, cola, even marshmallows and gum. I’ve seen and used ’em all. Hell, when I really need it, I’ll go straight to the bean (though I’m pretty sure most of the pickup is actually from the chocolate).
But the truth is that caffeine isn’t actually an upper. Instead, it blocks the receptors in the brain that monitor tiredness, letting your naturally produced stimulants work more effectively. But there are two important factors: First, caffeine cannot boost you past your natural level of alertness. And second, you build a tolerance, forcing you to imbibe greater and greater amounts for the same effect. (LifeHacker has a pretty awesome article on the science of caffeine if you’d like further information.)
But let’s face it, you can only drink so much coffee before your kidneys pickle.
So what do most people resort to?
The desperate solution: sugar.
If you stay up all night, whether to study, work, or marathon a gaming session, sooner or later you’re going to resort to the white powder. Candy, chocolate, soda… there are just so many ways to chase that rush. But, as we’ve all experienced as children, sugar only takes you so high before you crash.
Well, you could binge – stay awake by combining the constant act of consumption with the perilous peaks of processed foods. But that’s a short lived road – literally. Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, even cancer can all result from this dangerous practice.
So what’s left?
The “healthy” solution: sleep and exercise.
Sounds really common-sense, doesn’t it? But you would not believe how difficult it is. First, let’s take sleep. If you’re working the night shift only one or two nights a week, the strain of the unfamiliarity will go a long way toward making sure you sleep afterwards. But it isn’t necessarily good, restful sleep. Instead it either falls into light, restless napping or deep, recuperating rest. Neither is ideal, either leaving you weakened and irritable or taking more time out of your day.
And if you’re working five days or more on the overnight, it’s even more difficult – not less.
I’ve found that the only way to sleep with any regularity is to establish a routine. In bed by the same time every day, and awake much the same. Doing this, I can typically manage 6-8 hours a day. But even the slightest upset in the routine can have dire results. Miss a bus or eat a snack too close to bedtime and I’m lucky to catch 4 hours.
Outside of pharmaceuticals, there is one way to get a bit of an edge: exercise. For me, the ideal time to hit the pillow is right after exhaustion hits but before catching my second wind. Physical weariness helps broaden that window, giving me a bit of a handicap. Turns out there’s even some research to support me.
Exercise, of course, has other uses. For starters, it’s the best means of remaining awake during a night shift. Run in place; do some push-ups off a desk; or, if your position allows, go for a walk in the brisk night air. Music, if allowed, can be a great assistant (so long as it doesn’t compromise your situational awareness). What’s important is to get the blood pumping and the metabolism running, helping trigger the necessary chemicals to keep you awake without the need for manufactured stimulants. Simultaneously, by expending the body’s resources, exercise sets you up for a needed rest and recuperation period.
The danger with exercise, however, lies in over-exertion. Push too hard and you won’t be able to recover by the next night’s shift. Just as with sleeping, it’s important to establish a routine and maintain it.
Now, all this is well and good, but it isn’t fool-proof. As I mentioned at the top of the post, I still typically spend at least one day a week awake for an extended period (anywhere from 20-30 hours). This is partly by design, allowing me to capitalize on my “weekend” days and hot-wire in two nights of a “normal” sleep pattern. But primarily it’s a side-effect of fighting human nature – we’re simply designed to run heliocentrically. To do otherwise causes friction and the stress takes time to dissipate (every few weeks I get a day/night where I sleep for 10-12 hrs).
That said, I’m not ready to pass on such a unique experience. I have the opportunity to see the city of Boston like few others. I’ve watched the sun set over Fenway Park only to rise again over Castle Island. I’ve sat on the Longfellow Bridge and watched a blizzard blow into the 3AM silence of the city. I’ve been the first to plow a path through snowdrifts on the Commons and the only passenger on a T-ride through the inky darkness of the pre-dawn.
These moments may seem lonely to you, but to me they’re exhilarating.
Which is why I want to leave you with this last video: a time-lapse recording from the ISS on a night-time orbit. Rare is the night I don’t look up hoping to catch a glimpse as the station glides overhead. I recommend watching it full screen and at the highest definition your computer can handle.