5 Ways to Stay Awake and Boost Energy During a Long Shift at the Hospital

A doctor holds up an x-ray.

Working overnight shifts or extra-long hours can take its toll on anyone’s health.

After all, there’s a huge body of research connecting long shifts with sleep deprivation and its many physical and mental health effects. But for doctors and others in the field of medicine, the need to stay awake and alert in order to provide the best level of patient care.

“Residents in America are expected to spend up to 80 hours a week in the hospital and endure single shifts that routinely last up to 28 hours — with such workdays required about four times a month, on average,” wrote Ryan Park for The Atlantic.

This challenging schedule continues to be a controversial topic, with many health experts concerned about the fact that intense work schedules are associated with increased health risks for both patients and caregivers.

RELATED: The Benefits of Getting More Sleep

There is no doubt the long shifts and other demands placed on medical professionals can be nothing short of grueling. But the good news is that a few practical steps may make extended hours at least slightly more manageable. We’ve done the research and talked with professionals to get their thoughts on the best ways to stay awake during a long shift.

Tips to Stay Awake on a Long Shift

When it comes to surviving a long shift, there’s more than one way to stay awake. Here are some of the best tools to put in the arsenal.

caffeine on a long shift

Caffeine On a Long Shift

When it comes to surviving a long shift, caffeine may be one of the most effective ways to stay awake.

In 2010, researchers from the London School of Tropical Medicine reviewed 13 trials that looked at how caffeine affected the performance of shift workers. They found that caffeine “appeared to reduce errors compared to placebos or naps, and improve performance in various neuropsychological tests, including those focusing on memory, attention, perception and concept formation and reasoning,” according to ScienceDaily.

“There definitely are strategies to keeping awake — coffee is key. Obviously they say to not rely on that, but a little caffeine is your best friend mid-way through your shift,” Dr. Nick Tsourmas, an OB-GYN resident in New York, told Mattress Clarity via email.

Natural Products Like Peppermint

“A dab of lemon oil or peppermint oil on your wrists or neck can give you a renewed sense of alertness,” ER nurse Curtis Olson wrote in ScrubsMag.com. Olson was quick to point out the natural and non-jittery nature of the oils but says that your “funny cologne” may give you some looks in the hallway.

Turns out there’s some science to back up Olson’s claims. Researchers from Northumbria University’s Department of Psychology found peppermint tea seemed to improve alertness and boost memory.

“Peppermint has a reputation for being psychologically or mentally alerting,” Dr. Mark Moss, head of Northumbria’s Department of Psychology, said in a release. “It picks you up and makes you feel a little bit brighter, so we endeavored to test this out by giving people peppermint tea, or chamomile tea, which is a more calming drink and then put them through some computerized tests. We found that those people who had drunk the peppermint tea had better long-term memory.”

RELATED: Aromatherapy for Sleep

Keep Moving

Moving can keep you awake

When someone is exhausted during a long shift, physical activity may be the last thing on their mind, but it’s one of the best ways to stay awake.

An article from Tonic (the health sub-site of news publication VICE) asked medical residents how they got through long shifts. “Once things calmed down and the hospital was quiet, I just kept moving and consumed a lot of candy,” Tamara Johnson of New Jersey told the publication. “Sometimes I’d even run up and down the staircase. Go outside and let the crisp air awaken you.”

Tsourmas concurs. “Exercise outside work too,” he tells us. “I definitely find that the weeks I’m too tired to go for a run and just truck through my shifts I am 10 [times] more exhausted than I would be if I force myself to just jog home and clear my head.”

Science backs up this anecdotal suggestion. “Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means,” says the team at Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Blog. “Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.”

The good news is it doesn’t take much exercise to enjoy these benefits. The standard recommendation is to squeeze in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on every day possible.

Eat a Balanced Diet

“People who work shifts sometimes skip meals, eat irregularly, eat unhealthy food, and may find it hard to keep up a regular exercise schedule,” says the National Sleep Foundation. This helps explain why research suggests shift workers are more vulnerable to weight gain and heart disease.

Nevertheless, a healthy diet is essential both for sustaining energy levels and maintaining overall health. The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following strategies for sticking to a nutritious diet:

  • Stock the kitchen with healthy foods so they’re easy to grab when hunger kicks in.
  • Make meals before a shift begins and bring them into work. This way, you won’t be relying on vending machine food to make it through your shift.
  • Eat small meals frequently instead of a few big meals.

“Nutrition is key — it’s a marathon; you need a little carbs, a little sugar, and some protein,” Tsourmas tells us. “Trying to stay away from the easy, quick pick-up pizza can be tough, but it really makes for a better shift if you can stay healthy.”

Healthy eating is a tip echoed by others in the field. It’s “important to eat and drink during your shift,” an Austin ophthalmologist told Mattress Clarity. “It’s pretty easy to ignore these basic things, [but it] makes it harder to get through the last hours of the shift if you didn’t eat or drink earlier.”

Prioritize Sleep When Possible

Working long shifts and overnight shifts can make it extra difficult to get consistent sleep, but experts maintain that trying to rest whenever possible will help.

In some cases, health care professionals who work in a team can split up care so some team members can nap while the others manage patients, Tsourmas tells us.

It may also be helpful to catch some extra ZZZs before your shift. “It is a good idea to take a nap just before reporting for a night shift,” say researchers at the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. “This makes you more alert on the job. A nap of about 90 minutes seems to be best.”

There’s no way around the fact that shift work can be exhausting. But those who have been in the trenches maintain that the preceding tips can make long shifts at least a little more bearable.

[Editor’s Note: The content provided on this site is for general informational purposes only. Any information provided is not a substitute for professional medical advice. We encourage you to consult with the appropriate health expert if you have concerns.]

Featured image: create jobs 51/Shutterstock

Katie Golde

Katie previously managed the day to day operations of the Mattress Clarity news site and reviews sleep products in addition to writing and editing sleep news. She hails from Austin, where she lives with her growing family. She is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and has a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and has a background in health and science content. Her work can be found in print and online publications like Discover Magazine, USA Today and The Huffington Post.