When staff are working night shift in nursing homes they often feel they are too busy to eat, but new research has shown that taking the time to eat a small snack is the best way to minimise feelings of sleepiness and they key to staying alert.

Thankfully, a survey of HelloCare readers found nearly two-thirds are already snacking when they work night shift, while just over a third told us they prefer to eat a full meal.

Working at night clashes with the body’s internal circadian clock, making it harder to stay focused at work and difficult to stay awake. 

Australia has 1.4 million shift workers, and of those, 15 per cent – or more than 200,000 people, including aged care staff – regularly work at night. Managing fatigue is a significant issue for this large cohort. 

Now, researchers from the University of South Australia have shown that eating a small snack on night shift is better for reducing sleepiness and preserving alertness than eating a large meal or not eating at all.

The study

Charlotte Gupta, from the School of Psychology at the University of South Australia, told HelloCare, “We know that many shift workers eat ‘on shift’, particularly during the night, but no research has actually shown whether this is good or bad for the workers’ performance and alertness.”

“What we wanted to know was if there was an ideal amount of food to eat during the night to optimize performance and alertness without causing more sleepiness or making the workers feel so full that they couldn’t perform.”

The study followed 44 healthy, non-shift-working participants who stayed in the University’s sleep lab for seven days. The lab is a light-, noise- and sound-controlled environment. 

Participants stayed awake during the night and slept during the day. At night they took performance tests such as simulated driving tests, reaction time tests, and they reported on their sleepiness, hunger, and gastric upset. 

The participants were divided into three groups. All groups ate the same amount of food every 24 hours, but researchers managed the times each group ate. 

  • One group ate a big lunch at night (for example a sandwich, muesli bar, and an apple). 
  • One group ate a small snack (for example just the muesli bar and apple). 
  • The third group had no food during the night and ate all their food during the day.

The study found those who ate the small snack during the night were the most alert for the rest of the night shift, and performed better and reacted to things faster. 

“They were more alert, less hungry and had no gastric upset,” Ms Gupta said. “Those who had the large meal performed the worst. 

Not eating at all can lead to people feeling hungry at night, which can be “distracting” when trying to work, Ms Gupta said.

Busy aged care workers encouraged to find time to eat

Working night shift can be extremely busy for aged care staff, Ms Gupta said, but she recommends they make time to eat.

“Finding time to eat on shift can be particularly hard for aged care workers as sometimes it’s hard to be relieved of client care duties,” she said. 

“When working a night shift, if you are awake all night  then a small snack can help you stay alert.”

Does chocolate help?

Next, the researchers plan to look at which types of snacks are best for shift workers.

“The next step in the research would be to test different types of snacks,” Ms Gupta said.

HelloCare readers have told us they snack on fruit, yoghurt, cheese and protein shakes, but none confessed to eating chocolate. 

But Ms Gupta said, “Sometimes shift workers choose to snack on tastier snacks such as chocolate or biscuits during the night, but we don’t know if foods that are higher in sugar and fat may impact performance differently at night.”

Let’s hope researchers find the “tastier snacks” are good for us!

What are your go-to snacks when working nights?

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