A new study sponsored by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine exposed a potential connection between night shift work and type 2 diabetes. Its results could prove significant for diabetes prevention efforts.
According to the National Diabetes Clearinghouse, diabetes affects more than 8% of the U.S. population. Type 2 diabetes, the kind related to unhealthy diet, sedentary lifestyle and being overweight, is far more prevalent than type 1. Thirty-five percent of people over 20 have prediabetes, meaning they are at very high risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
Researchers recently sought to study a possible connection between night work and two main diabetes markers: glucose levels and insulin levels. Type 2 diabetes occurs when there is excess glucose (sugar) in the blood. Insulin, produced by the pancreas, is released in the body to direct glucose out of the blood and into cells; one of the main causes of diabetes is insulin resistance, which occurs when cells stop responding to insulin normally and fail to take in glucose from the blood. The pancreas responds, in the early stages, by producing larger-than-normal amounts of insulin. After a while, it can no longer keep up its output and stops producing enough.
The study involved 13 non-diabetic, non-obese participants who spent four consecutive days working day shifts and then night shifts, or the other way around, with baseline days in between. Their diets were identical for both shifts. Researchers tested glucose and insulin levels before their first meals and several times after. They found that the participants had 16% higher glucose levels and 40 to 50% higher insulin levels when on the night shift schedule as when on the day shift schedule. See more on this at www.eurekalert.org.
The markedly higher insulin levels during the night work schedule suggest that sleeping through the day and being awake at night can interfere with your cells’ insulin sensitivity. Prolonged insulin resistance can lead to diabetes, as described above. This study was very small, and its results aren’t conclusive; for example, it’s possible that the bodies of those who regularly work the night shift have adjusted to the schedule. If not, the study could mean that changing to a daytime work schedule is part of a diabetes prevention plan for people with prediabetes, or part of diabetes management for those who already have it.
Type 2 diabetes is one of a host of health conditions that come with an unhealthy lifestyle. Thorough treatment and prevention includes, first and foremost, changes to diet and activity levels. The results of this study suggest a supplementary protocol for patients with diabetes and prediabetes, not an alternative to other lifestyle changes.