Dietary Supplements Proven to Help Shift Workers Have More Energy and Get Better Sleep
Dietary Supplements Proven to Help Shift Workers Have More Energy and Get Better Sleep
Many shift workers turn to dietary supplements to boost energy during their shift and sleep better during the day. Supplements can be a valuable part of your plan, but they shouldn’t be your only solution. Supplements won’t make up for poor habits. Exercise, adequate sleep, naps, shift scheduling, and dietary strategies should all be included in your plan to combat the stress of shift work. Simply using caffeine to power through your nights and neglecting other beneficial strategies is a bit like focusing on perfume or cologne as your only approach to personal hygiene. Sure, you’ll smell sweet for a few days, but the grime and body odor will eventually become overpowering.
Always consult your doctor when adding a new supplement to your regimen. The below review is limited to dietary supplements only. Ask your doctor about any prescription or over-the-counter medication options to develop a complete strategy that’s right for you.
Melatonin is naturally produced in the pineal gland (synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan, hence the superstition that turkey makes you tired). Melatonin levels rise in the evening and return to baseline by morning.1 It is thought that a melatonin supplement can mimic the body’s natural melatonin production when sleeping outside of the normal sleep/wake cycle. Results of placebo-controlled clinical trials show modest2, 3, 4, 5 or no 6,7,8 effect of melatonin when used by shift workers to improve daytime sleep. Given the mixed outcomes, larger-scale studies are required to make any conclusive recommendations. Based on the positive results of some studies, however, melatonin may slightly reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and increase the duration of sleep, especially among those who have difficulty sleeping during the day. Effects may be greater when combined with light therapy. Reduced errors in subsequent night shifts were also attributed to melatonin use in some studies. Melatonin is safe and well-tolerated with no significant side effects.9
Recommendation: If you have trouble sleeping the day after a night shift, take 2-5 mg melatonin 30 minutes prior to sleep. Bright white lights during your night shift and orange or yellow glasses to filter blue light for the three hours prior to sleep (especially when exposed to sunlight) may provide additional benefit.10
Valerian, an herbal extract from the root of the valerian plant, has been recommended since the times of the Greek physician Galen as a sleep aid.11 Though its exact mechanism of action is the subject of speculation, valerian is thought to act on GABA12 and serotonin13 receptors. Despite its popularity and long history of use, valerian hasn’t been researched as an aid for shift work. Studies using valerian to treat insomnia have reported mixed results, with some finding a modest improvement in symptoms and others finding no significant effect.14 The most recent meta-analysis of valerian suggests it may provide modest improvements in sleep quality but likely doesn’t improve the time required to fall asleep.15 Valerian is safe and well-tolerated, with no significant side effects.16
Recommendation: For those experiencing poor quality sleep, try taking a valerian supplement 30 minutes to 2 hours before bed. Mode of extraction appears to alter the active compounds in valerian supplements and may explain some of the variation in outcomes. Be sure to purchase valerian from a reputable manufacturer.
Hops, used in beer brewing, have been recommended in traditional medicine to promote relaxation. Studies have demonstrated that hops can enhance GABA receptor activation and modulate serotonin activity, providing a sedative effect and promoting sleep.17 In one small study among nurses working night shifts, an alcohol-free beer consumed at dinner reduced the time required to fall asleep and improved the quality of sleep they obtained.18 It’s thought that hops may be beneficial for those engaging in high-stress work such as shift work, though more studies are required to validate the results. Avoid alcohol-containing beer, however. Alcohol, especially in large doses, is known to reduce sleep quality even though it may help you fall asleep faster.19
Recommendation: If you have trouble unwinding after your shift, 12 oz of alcohol-free beer or a hops supplement may help relax and prepare you for sleep. A combination of hops and valerian shows promise for helping you fall asleep faster and sleep longer.20
Caffeine is found naturally in coffee, tea, guarana, chocolate, and other foods. It’s also added to a variety of beverages, foods, medications, and supplements. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. After consumption, caffeine reaches peak levels within 30 minutes in most people. Elimination rates vary widely, however, dropping to about half the maximum concentration in 3 to 10 hours. There is strong evidence that caffeine attenuates declines in attention, reasoning, and memory that occur due to shift work. It does not appear to counteract the negative effects of sleep deprivation on language skills, however.21 While caffeine improves reaction time and alertness in sleep-deprived individuals, it does not fully prevent errors compared with an adequately rested state.22 Over time, individuals may become habituated to caffeine, reducing its efficacy.23 It may be beneficial to reserve caffeine use only for those times it’s most needed or abstain for several weeks a few times each year to maximize caffeine’s effect. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that up to 400 mg of caffeine daily is safe among healthy adults.24 Pregnant individuals or those with chronic disease should consult their doctor to determine an appropriate caffeine intake.
Recommendations: If you have trouble focusing or remaining alert during your shift, consume 100-400 mg of caffeine (the amount in 1-4 cups of coffee) as needed to support alertness during night shifts. Due to its fast metabolism, 100 mg every 2-3 hours may provide a more sustained effect than 400 mg all at once. Avoid caffeine within 4-8 hours of sleep.
Energy drinks, while often labeled and sold as a food, are consumed more like a supplement, with active ingredients intended to boost energy. Although energy drinks are popular, there is little scientific evidence to support their use. Among the common ingredients in energy drinks, many, like glucuronolactone, have not been studied extensively in humans while others, like taurine and guarana, are not provided in sufficient quantities to have a therapeutic effect.25 In fact, energy drinks haven’t been shown to work any better than caffeine alone. No studies have compared energy drinks with a caffeinated placebo for the purpose of reducing fatigue during shift work, but in studies investigating their metabolic26 and sports performance27 benefits, energy drinks increased energy metabolism and endurance more than a non-caffeinated placebo but provided similar effects to a caffeinated placebo.
Recommendation: Energy drinks may be a palatable way of consuming caffeine but are likely no more effective than other caffeine-containing products. Be aware that only added caffeine must be disclosed on labels. Energy drinks may have undisclosed caffeine from ingredients like guarana, potentially leading to caffeine intakes beyond intended amounts.
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Khom S1, Baburin I, Timin E, Hohaus A, Trauner G, Kopp B, Hering S. Valerenic acid potentiates and inhibits GABA(A) receptors: molecular mechanism and subunit specificity. Neuropharmacology. 2007 Jul;53(1):178-87. Epub 2007 May 13.
Lacher SK, Mayer R, Sichardt K, Nieber K, Müller CE. Interaction of valerian extracts of different polarity with adenosine receptors: identification of isovaltrate as an inverse agonist at A1 receptors. Biochem Pharmacol. 2007 Jan 15;73(2):248-58.
Salter S, Brownie S. Treating primary insomnia – the efficacy of valerian and hops. Aust Fam Physician. 2010 Jun;39(6):433-7.
Fernández-San-Martín MI, Masa-Font R, Palacios-Soler L, Sancho-Gómez P, Calbó-Caldentey C, Flores-Mateo G. Effectiveness of Valerian on insomnia: a meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials. Sleep Med. 2010 Jun;11(6):505-11. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2009.12.009.
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Franco L, Sánchez C, Bravo R, Rodríguez AB, Barriga C, Romero E, Cubero J. The sedative effect of non-alcoholic beer in healthy female nurses. PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e37290. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0037290.
He S, Hasler BP, Chakravorty S. Alcohol and sleep-related problems. Curr Opin Psychol. 2019 Dec;30:117-122. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.03.007.
Morin CM, Koetter U, Bastien C, Ware JC, Wooten V. Valerian-hops combination and diphenhydramine for treating insomnia: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial. Sleep. 2005 Nov;28(11):1465-71.
Ker K, Edwards PJ, Felix LM, Blackhall K, Roberts I. Caffeine for the prevention of injuries and errors in shift workers. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010 May 12;(5):CD008508.
Anderson JR, Hagerdorn PL, Gunstad J, Spitznagel MB. Using coffee to compensate for poor sleep: Impact on vigilance and implications for workplace performance. Appl Ergon. 2018 Jul;70:142-147. doi: 10.1016/j.apergo.2018.02.026.
Southward K, Rutherfurd-Markwick KJ, Ali A. The effect of acute caffeine ingestion on endurance performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2018 Oct;48(10):2425-2441. doi: 10.1007/s40279-018-0967-4.
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Higgins JP, Tuttle TD, Higgins CL. Energy beverages: content and safety. Mayo Clin Proc. 2010 Nov;85(11):1033-41. doi: 10.4065/mcp.2010.0381.
Miles-Chan JL, Charrière N, Grasser EK, Montani JP, Dulloo AG. The thermic effect of sugar-free Red Bull: do the non-caffeine bioactive ingredients in energy drinks play a role? Obesity (Silver Spring). 2015 Jan;23(1):16-9. doi: 10.1002/oby.20905.
Quinlivan A, Irwin C, Grant GD, Anoopkumar-Dukie S, Skinner T, Leveritt M, Desbrow B. The effects of Red Bull energy drink compared with caffeine on cycling time-trial performance. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2015 Oct;10(7):897-901. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2014-0481.
Ron Beckstrom is a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, and writer. As a retail dietitian, Ron advises on and writes about the latest food trends and products and has been featured on numerous local news outlets. Ron has worked in various settings as a health professional including hospitals, corporate wellness, and nutritional supplement R&D. Ron is also a member of the Utah National Guard where he serves as an operations officer.