In my world, experiments run all night long. Time on the accelerator is too precious, and getting started again is too hard, so night shifts are a fact of life. So are the packets of biscuits on the control room table, which are a kind way of saying: “We know you won’t have time to eat dinner. Or 3 a.m. breakfast. Here, have a sugar bomb consolation prize. Or five!” Towards the end of each experiment, we all start joking about how we gain a kilo for each experiment, and how coffee has replaced the contents of our veins. It became a tie that bound us all together in some kind of brutal physics team building exercise.
But as I got older, I started having a harder time with night shifts. I’d have more trouble doing my job after a certain hour, and found myself unable to get back into some semi-productive mode once my schedule had been shifted so dramatically. Eventually, I realized I had two options: (1) Quit physics, or (2) Find a better way. Given the decade of time I had invested, I chose to pursue option 2 first. This was right around the time I started training for my first marathon, and I was reading all about performance nutrition for the race. Eventually, it occurred to me that performance nutrition didn’t just matter for marathon training—it could, in fact, apply to life as well.
And so, I embarked upon an experiment, to see if my “beamtime diet” could improve my performance during (and recovery after) a long experiment. Here are the changes I found helped me the most.
Back away from the sugar
I know, it’s nearly impossible. But you need to do it. Stay away from the biscuits, sweets, anything with simple sugar in the ingredient list. While you’re at it, cut out the simple carbs, too. Why? Because consuming these things causes your blood sugar to shoot up and then crash down, requiring another hit of sugary sweets far too soon when you have a full day and night ahead of you. For me, keeping my blood sugar steady was the first and most important nutritional tweak I (attempt to) keep in place for each experiment.
Put the caffeine hound to bed
I know, this seems contrary to what you should be doing, but caffeine causes the same kind of ebb and flow as sugar, if you keep going at it too hard. A cup or two a day is fine, but if you absolutely need coffee to get through a day, you’re probably making your night shift problems worse, not better. If I’m lucky and get a nap before my shift, I’ll have one cup at the start of the night, and then stick to water or herbal tea for the rest of the night.
Mmmm, protein and fat
This is all about keeping your energy levels, well, level. I keep a few handfuls of raw nuts in my bag, and tend to snack on hard-boiled eggs, healthy meats, and various combinations of dips with veg. Which brings me to my next point…
Make fruit and veg your midnight snacks of choice
I find that I can skip the biscuit table if I have beautiful, already prepared fruit and veg in the fridge during experiments. My favourite is a selection of red peppers, cucumbers and broccoli with some kind of creamy sauce (chili mayo, hummus, or even a vinaigrette).
I also keep apples on hand for a sweet kick. Yes, they include sugar, but the fibre+nutrient-rich package this sugar comes in tends to mitigate the negative effects.
If I’m short on time, I’ll pick up prepared fruit and veg from the grocery store. It’s still better than the biscuits.
Water is your friend
Last but not least, dehydration is not good for your brain. Keeping hydrated is a good way to help your body cope with the long nights. I like to keep a cold bottle of sparkling water in the fridge, maybe with some lemon slices for variety.
Most of these tips are pretty well in line with solid nutritional advice, anyway, but since biological variability is a beautiful reality, your results may vary. I encourage you to perform a few experiments of your own, to see what works best for you. It all comes down to figuring out how to take care of yourself as well as possible in a sometimes physically and mentally demanding lab environment.
(All photos are from a blog I wrote in what feels like a previous life. Maybe I’ll turn some of my healthier recipes into an occasional post here, in case you’re hungry for dinner at three a.m. and need some inspiration.)
In case it needs to be said: my PhD is in physics, not in nutrition. These suggestions are based on my own personal experiences, and should not be taken as professional medical or nutritional advice by anyone.