Diabetes and Shift Work

Black male health care worker at night in a hospital.

Find out how to navigate the challenges of working nights or irregular shifts and still have a healthy lifestyle with diabetes.

When it comes to managing diabetes, many people find it helpful to get into a daily routine. But what if your work schedule prevents you from keeping a regular routine? Find out how you can handle a challenging work schedule and still live a healthy lifestyle with diabetes.

Jobs in health care, service and hospitality, firefighting, law enforcement, security, truck driving, and more require evening or overnight shift work. People who work night shifts, rotating shifts (different start times on different days), or other irregular schedules have unique challenges managing a healthy lifestyle with diabetes.

In 2019, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that about 16% of the workforce had non-daytime work schedules. Benefits to shift work can include better pay and fewer work days per week. But recent research shows that people who work night and rotating shifts may have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Circadian Rhythms and Sleep

Your body naturally has a circadian rhythm, which is an internal clock that helps control your sleep and digestion.

Circadian rhythms are usually linked to daylight and nighttime, which helps you regulate your waking and sleeping hours. For example, when you wake up in the morning, your body releases cortisol, which is a hormone that makes you feel alert and energized. In the evening, your body releases melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. Your body’s circadian rhythm also helps you release insulin, a hormone that balances your blood sugar levels.

When overnight or rotating shifts disrupt your circadian rhythm, these hormones can also be disrupted. Unbalanced cortisol and insulin levels can increase your blood sugar and cause insulin resistance.

Healthy sleep is about more than just following your circadian rhythm. In addition to timing and quality, it also matters how much sleep you get. If you get less than 7 hours of sleep a day, you have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes—even without the added challenge of an irregular sleep schedule.

Shift Work and Health Care Workers

Doctors, nurses, emergency responders, and others in health care are commonly required to work overnight and irregular shifts. While taking care of others, health care workers sometimes forget to pause and take care of themselves. If you’re a health care worker with diabetes, make sure to take time to self-manage your diabetes.

Shift Work and Eating Patterns

Overnight and rotating shifts can also affect your eating habits. Your mealtimes and appetite can often be irregular if you sleep through daytime meals, work through dinner or breakfast, or eat large meals in the middle of the night or before you go to sleep.

Skipping meals or eating very large meals can cause both low and high blood sugar. Both can be harmful in the short and long term. When you have diabetes, mealtimes should be as predictable as possible to keep your blood sugar levels in their target range.

Shift Work and Physical Activity

Shift work can make it hard to get regular physical activity, especially if you need to make sure you’re getting enough sleep after a shift. Some jobs may also require you to be on your feet and moving around throughout your shift. Be sure to have snacks handy for physically demanding work, and monitor your blood sugar regularly to make sure it doesn’t drop too low. Always have a fast-acting sugar source available in case you need to treat low blood sugar.

Lifestyle Tips for Shift Workers

Eating Habits

  • Try to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at your normal times as much as possible, even if you’re working a late night or overnight shift. Avoid large meals in the middle of the night to reduce the chance of a spike in your blood sugar.
  • Grabbing convenience foods or other less healthy options can be tempting when working overnight. Planning and prepping your meals and snacks in advance is a great way to set yourself up for success and have healthy options any time of day. You won’t have to rely on vending machines and other less healthy convenience foods.

Sleep Schedule

  • Try keeping track of your sleep to help you understand your patterns and how many hours you’re getting. Take short naps when you’re not working if you’re not getting enough hours of sleep.
  • Some shift workers have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. You can set up your sleeping area so it’s dark and free from distractions. Blackout curtains and sound machines can create a comfortable environment to help you catch up on sleep after a late-night shift.
  • Avoid caffeine toward the end of your shift, so you’ll be able to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Physical Activity

  • Make a physical activity plan that allows you to work around your shifts and sleep. If you’re unable to be active on workdays, focus on being active on your days off.
  • Some people find that physical activity helps them sleep, while others find that it keeps them awake if done close to bedtime. Pay attention to how physical activity affects you and keep this in mind as you plan your activity schedule.

Blood Sugar Monitoring

  • Monitoring your blood sugar helps you identify patterns, and timing matters. For people who work day shifts, blood sugar taken first thing in the morning will be a fasting measurement (8 or more hours since your last meal). This isn’t always the case if you work overnight, so keep this in mind when you monitor your fasting and non-fasting blood sugar levels.
  • Make sure you’re checking your blood sugar consistently to help you stay within your target range throughout your shift, especially if your job requires you to move around.

 Medication Schedule

  • Taking all medicines consistently at the same time every day is crucial to diabetes self-management. Working irregular hours may make it hard to stick to your schedule, so plan ahead. Having a plan is especially important if you need to take medicines with food during a shift.
  • Consider setting a reminder, like an alarm on your phone, so you don’t miss any doses.
  • Talk with your doctor about your medication schedule if you need help figuring out a realistic plan that will work for you.

Stress and Fatigue

  • Working overnight or rotating shifts can take a toll physically, emotionally, and socially. Some shift workers may feel added stress or fatigue from their unique work hours. It can be more difficult to feel socially connected if you work different hours from your family and friends.
  • Find time when you can for hobbies, self-care, and social time with loved ones to help manage your stress.