Anyone who does shift work knows that it isn’t easy.

Being awake when others are asleep, at work when they’re having fun, or hungry when they’ve already eaten can take a mental toll.

What some shift workers may not realize is that it takes a physiological toll too.

“When we ask our body to do something different, that is a bit troubling,” Toronto physician Dr. Kimberly Wintemute told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

As Wintemute explained, our brains send signals to our bodies to sleep during darkness and stay awake when it is light out.

For shift workers – an estimated 25 per cent of the North American workforce, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – that isn’t always possible. Wintemute offered a series of tips for anyone looking to stay healthy despite their body’s circadian rhythm.

1) Stay active. If you’re working late at night or early in the morning, keep your body alert by taking breaks, wandering outside from time to time, and staying engaged with your coworkers.

2) Eat wisely. “After an overnight shift, I sometimes don’t make very healthy choices around what to eat,” Wintemute said. That’s not just because of tiredness affecting judgment – it’s because hormonal elevations make people feel hungrier than they should be. Avoid the empty carbs you’re craving and remember that healthy diets matter at all hours.

3) Coffee can help – but only in moderation. Although water should be the beverage of choice, Wintemute said small doses of caffeine taken early in the shift can help with alertness and concentration. “We have to be careful not to do that too close to the time when we need to go home and sleep,” she said.

4) You want it darker. Since darkness sends the brain a signal that it’s time to sleep, people trying to fall asleep during daylight hours should look to create their own darkness, maybe by using blackout blinds or wearing sunglasses on their way home from work.

5) Rest up. No matter what time of day you’re sleeping, you can do your body a world of good by getting seven to eight hours of rest, Wintemute said.