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Do night shifts really 'give you diabetes'?

“Shift workers getting too little sleep at the wrong time of day may be increasing their risk of diabetes and obesity,” according to the BBC, which reported new research showing that changes to normal sleep can cause the body to struggle with controlling its sugar levels.

The news is based on a lab-based study that examined how three weeks of sleep disruption affected people’s metabolism and blood sugar levels. To do this, researchers recruited 24 healthy adults to stay in a sealed hospital unit for 39 days while lighting levels, temperature and feeding times were manipulated to confuse their body clocks. At the same time, researchers restricted the number of hours that participants slept each night. They then measured blood sugar levels and metabolism, to determine how the disrupted schedule might affect the body’s ability to process energy. They found that during the disrupted sleep schedule, the participants’ metabolism slowed and the amount of sugar circulating in their blood after a meal was increased. They concluded that such changes to metabolism could result in an increased risk of obesity and diabetes.

This unusual study provides interesting clues to how disrupted sleep could affect our metabolism. However, the results should be interpreted cautiously given that it was a small, highly controlled study looking at short-term biological changes rather than long-term conditions.

In short, unless you do your job sealed in a small, windowless room for weeks at a time, the study is unlikely to reflect your work environment, and even then it would not necessarily show that your raised blood sugar would lead to the development of obesity or diabetes in the long term.

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