ScienceSkepticism

Ask Surly Amy: Vampires and Vitamins

Dear Surly Amy,

I don’t take vitamins. Given my fortunate resources, I aim to get needed nutrients from my diet; plus sketchy regulation, paired with the cesspit of horseshit claims made by the supplement industry,
tuns me off. The catch: a while back I moved to night shift, and my body went to hell. My hair is dull, breaks, and falls out. All my nails broke off. My skin is dry and itchy, so is my nose, I’m getting gray hairs for the first time in my life, etc. I figure the best fix is to sleep like a normal human being, but that’s not an option. I figure eating healthy would help, but after a 10-15 hour shift I am more likely to reach for a frozen pizza than cook something healthy. And all the advice I hear is “vitamins!” So, given that I live as a vampire and fail at eating well, would supplementation help? More important, where do I go for science-based advice re: supplement usage? My google-fu fails in the face of the sheer volume of woo out there. Help?

~Corvus


Dear Corvus,

First I have to start off by saying, I am not a doctor. You should go see a doctor. A real one. One with MD by their name. Seriously. Go.

Now, on to my take of the situation.

My guess is that you are not adjusting well to the night shift. Very few people do. I have witnessed this with my own eyes a few times. I worked the graveyard shift in my younger years and my husband is an editor for television and he often picks up the night shift which is usually 6pm to 5am give or take a few hours on either side. It’s really rough on him and he is used to it. In fact, he often opts for the night shifts. Working nights can wreck you because you never really get enough sleep. Your body’s circadian rhythm doesn’t ever seem to sync up with sleeping when it’s daylight no matter how many trash bags you tape to your windows to try and block out the rays.

The other problem with the nightshift is you usually do need some sunlight to get a proper amount of vitamin D. So this is where some of that go get your vitamins might actually be relevant. Problem is, you really should go to a doctor to get a blood test to see what your vitamin D levels are. It’s very common to have low levels of vitamin D these days even for those of us on the day shift but you don’t want to accidentally megadose on any vitamin, especially vitamin D because it is a fat soluble vitamin. Your body stores the excess fat soluble vitamins instead of peeing them out and so you can quickly get a toxic amount if you are not careful. Other fat soluble vitamins are vitamins A, E and K. So while you may indeed be deficient in vitamin D, as my husband was, from lack of sunlight you really want to be sure of it before you start taking supplements. You need to get a blood test to find out and you need to go to a doctor to do that. Your doctor will tell you what dose and how often to take it if you are indeed deficient.

As for finding reputable information on vitamins and supplements, my favorite website for looking up this type of information is Science Based Medicine. I can’t sing the praises of that site enough. It is fantastic.

Other than that, my advice is to search for whatever you are looking for + the word “science”. It is not a fail-proof system but you are more likely to find information from a science blog or reputable source if you include the word science in your search criteria. You can also try the same combination but google the word “skeptic” along with your search word and then compare results of the science versus skeptic searches. It’s no joke that if you search for anything vitamin related without filtering you will end up with mostly pages full of nonsense trying to sell you an idea or a product you don’t need.

Another great site to find reliable information is to search on Pub Med. Pub Med has links to all the recent published medical studies and the not so recent ones too.

The moral is, I highly recommend you go see a doctor to check your vitamin levels and I hope you get the rest and nutrition you need!

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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14 Comments

  1. Good advice once again. Vitamins should be used like any other drug which is when the evidence says that it is better to take it than not. The only cases where I know where vitamins are recommended is to treat vitamin deficiencies (as you said) and sometimes prophylacticly such as pregnant women being advised to take extra folic acid.

    I talked to a doctor about this and she said that the reason it is better to get vitamins through food is the risk of overdose is drastically reduced and we don’t know as much about vitamins as many people think we do. There are uncountably many forms of these chemicals and we’ve just taken a handful and given them letters and numbers. When you swallow synthesized vitamins you only get those few. When you get vitamins through food you get the complete rainbow. (He says tiptoeing right up to the edge of the naturalistic fallacy.)

  2. I once worked a 4 nights on, 4 nights off shift for 2 years (cop shifts, as my friend, the former cop, would say). I became increasingly irritable, irrational, and gained a great deal of weight in that time. Typically, I’m a night owl, so I kinda chalk this up to the fact that it was also a rotating schedule where if I started a shift on Monday night this week, I would be starting a shift on Tuesday night the next week, which throws EVERYTHING off.

    “My hair is dull, breaks, and falls out. All my nails broke off. My skin is dry and itchy, so is my nose, I’m getting gray hairs for the first time in my life, etc.” — and yeah, either start biting people for their sweet, sweet blood, or go see a doctor…immediately.

  3. I work 9-12 hour nights depending on the day of the week. Lately I’ve been working 5 shifts a week. Combine that with a rather frequent amount of exercise throughout the shift and my less than orthopedic shoes, and it’s sort of a little hellish. Still, I have NEVER had my hair get fucked up or have any of the other symptoms the questioner has listed. My immediate response to reading that description was “Holy fuckballs, go to the doctor!”

  4. That sounds a lot like the symptoms of my (medically diagnosed) vitamin D deficiency. I suffered from muscle weakness and brittle hair and nails for some time until I had a blood test that found abnormally low levels, after which I started taking a supplement and the symptoms went away.

    I am not generally a fan of vitamins in pill form since all the evidence shows that getting them from food is better. However, levels of vitamin D in food are low. I can’t regularly spend enough time unprotected in the sun to allow my skin to produce what I need as I live in Australia and am at high risk of skin cancer. (Vitamin D deficiency sucks, but not as much as melanoma would.)

    The tricky part here is that the connection between low serum levels of vitamin D and deficiency is not completely clear. (Sure, my symptoms got better after I started supplementation, but I’m not ruling out the placebo effect/reversion to the mean playing a role in that.) There’s also evidence that vitamin D supplements could have risks, even at levels that don’t lead to toxicity. (There was a study released recently linking it to increased arterial fibrillation, but I can’t find a good link.)

  5. My understanding (from pop sci articles, I’m not a medical doctor etc. etc.) is that your own vitamin D production from sunlight turns off once you have sufficient vit. D in your blood. It would then follow that any regular intake of vit. D via diet and pills which does in itself give you too much vit. D. should be safe, as your natural production will (if given the opportunity) make up any shortfall between diet and optimum levels, but no more.

    I.e. taking non-excessive vit. D supplements may or may not be pointless (depending on your circumstances) but it should not be damaging.

    I re-emphasize that I am not a nutritionist, medical doctor etc. and I may be utterly wrong so don’t rely on this.

  6. I worked weird shifts from 1999-2007, and it took me probably 2.5-3 years to completely recover from it. I think asking what vitamins will help you cope with night shift is sort of like asking if there’s an over-the-counter remedy for radiation poisoning: the best you can hope for is staving off the inevitable for some tiny fraction of time at some great cost.

    Yeah, see a doctor… and then see your HR department and find a new shift, or start looking for a new job.

  7. The safe range of vitamin D intake is actually very wide. Up to 6x the RDA is safe for long term. This is a much wider range than other fat soluble vitamins e.g. vitamin A (where the upper limit is only 3x the RDA).

    It would be completely safe as a prophylactic for anybody who works the graveyard shift and sleeps immediately afterwards (missing most of the daytime) to take a vit. D supplement with 100% of the RDA.

    Also it is very important to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. If your shift is midnight-8am then you should sleep like 8:30am-4:30pm every day, even on your days off. And don’t ever use energy drinks because they’re horrible for you.

    My bedroom has huge windows facing the sun so I found it impossible to sleep past 6:30am without covering them entirely with a roll of black construction paper and some tape. I cover up anything with an LED or backlight on it (like the digital clock) because even those produce enough light to interfere with my sleep. With absolute darkness in the bedroom combined with not using the computer (or any other backlit device) in the last hour before bedtime, I find it much easier to get to sleep.

    Also, start looking for a different job if they fuck around with your shifts so you can’t sleep the same hours every day.

    1. Yes, having an absolutely rigid wake-sleep cycle helps a lot. And any other “time to sleep” techniques that work for you (I use chamomile tea and reading a book). I found that once I settled in I’d start to get that late-night-sleepy feeling if I wasn’t asleep by about 8am (I was working 6pm-6am), then I’d wake up about 4pm and feel quite alive (I’m a morning person). The key to 12 hour shifts is to cook and shop on my day off, and try to sleep more on that day too. It killed my social life, but the pay was worth it … at least for 6 weeks.

  8. I am 95% certain I have an undiagnosed non-24 sleep disorder, so I get the dubious benefit of not being much affected by shift work, jet lag, or other such blows to circadian rhythm. Of course that comes at the price of always feeling terrible, but that’s a story for another day.

    I’m curious about Vitamin D deficiency, since despite my generally vampiric lifestyle, I’ve seemingly always maintained normal-ish levels and never suffered any symptoms. I don’t even consume that much milk compared to most people, which I suppose might be a first line of attack if such a thing started (does Corvus drink or consume fortified milk?).

    All that said, my sympathy for anyone who suffers from sleep problems, because it really is a special kind of hell.

  9. What worked for me was using alfoil in the windows, it’s much more light-proof than other stuff, and also helps reflect the heat back out. Sleeping in the dark helps a lot. I used heavy curtains as well, mostly for the heat and noise. The neighbours apparently reported me to the cops for growing dope, but they drove past and laughed (I found out through a cop who saw my details on the report and told me).

    My employer also beefed up the lighting because they wanted us to be awake and alert. They used SAD-style lamps in our break room as well as having a night-shift setting in the factory that was 2x or 4x as many lights on. It seemed to help, but after 6 weeks of 12 hour night shifts 6 days a week I was greateful that it was a once-a-year thing.

    Given the health stats on shift workers, I’d want seriously high wages to do it long-term. I figure I’d be losing at least a year of life for every year I did shift work, plus losing much of my non-work time while I did it, so 3x-5x my usual wage would be required. That may be why I don’t do shift work…

  10. If you’re having symptoms – get thee to a doctor!
    If you do need a Vitamin D supplement – read the labels carefully. What you actually need is Cholecalciferol or Vitamin D3. And take it in the morning. As a previous poster mentioned, your body will shut down production of vitamin D when it has sufficient levels. So, take it in the morning and you’re body will produce any remaining gaps then turn off. If you take it at night, you run a higher risk of toxicity.
    As for night shifts.. I work nights, and have for the last 6 years. I’ve worked 8s (11p-7a) for the first 3years then 12s (7p-7a) for the last 3 years. I’ve always rather enjoyed it, but some of that has to do with my job. You couldn’t pay me enough to work day shift in a hospital. The key really is being able to do things on your days off. The 11p-7a is a far more sane schedule to keep. You can sleep, get up at night and cook, then go to work. Or you can be awake for the morning and sleep in the afternoon. The 12hr shift thing is really sort of hideous. There really is no wiggle room for doing anything else other than work and sleep. I know I’m fortunate in that 36hrs is considered to be full time, so I only have to work 3 nights a week. I have a friend who does 6 12hr shifts a week though (she’s a CNA and they get seriously shafted on the pay scale) at 2 different hospitals. Financially, I know it’s necessary for her, but I can’t imagine the possible health problems she’s lining up for.

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