New Shift Work Information on Weight Loss and Apnea, Craving a Smoke, and the Combined Effects of Caffeine and Alcohol

During the last month three new studies potentially impacting a number of shift workers have been released. Here are the top level findings:

1. A dramatic weight loss can improve moderate to severe sleep apnea in obese men.

2. Craving a cigarette while performing a cognitive task increases the chances of a person’s mind wandering and they don’t even realize it is happening.

3. Drinking a cup of coffee may actually make it harder for people to realize they’re drunk.

Read on to understand why these are important studies for shift workers.

Sleep Apnea

More shift workers suffer from sleep apnea than day-time workers (almost 4 times as many). The most common treatment for sleep apnea is using a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP), but many people struggle to use the device. Having a mask strapped onto your head, covering your nose, or nose and mouth, and worrying about knocking the machine down onto the floor spilling distilled water everywhere as you rollover and yank the tube with you, doesn’t contribute to restful sleep. The CPAP takes time to get used to, and many with apnea give up before settling into a comfort level with the machine.

The sleep apnea study (British Medical Journal) included a small group of participants (63 obese men between the ages of 30 and 65),  all with moderate to severe sleep apnea being treated with CPAPs. The men were divided into two groups with half participating in an intensive weight loss effort and half not attempting to lose weight. After nine weeks, the weight loss group lost about 40 pounds and their number of apnea events was reduced by 50%. Also after the nine weeks, none of those in the weight loss group had severe sleep apnea anymore; half had only mild apnea, and one in six was declared healthy.

To achieve their significant weight loss, those in the weight loss program were put on a very low calorie diet; under 600 calories per day for seven weeks followed by an increase in calories every two weeks until they reached 1,500 calories per day at week nine.

Craving a Cigarette

About twice as many shift workers smoke as daytime workers. A number of studies have shown that craving a cigarette can impact a person’s ability to concentrate. But, a new small study (University of Pittsburg) of 44 male and female heavy smokers, found that when smokers crave a smoke, not only is their concentration impaired, they aren’t even aware of their lack of focus.

All study participants smoked nearly a pack a day and stopped smoking for at least six hours before arriving at the testing lab. Half the group was allowed to smoke during the test period and the other half were not. Study participants were asked to read up to 34 pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace on a computer. If a participant found that they were zoning out, they pressed a key labeled ZO. In addition, every few minutes, a tone sounded, and the participants were asked via the computer, “Were you zoning out?” Participants responded by pressing a “Yes” or “No” key. After 30 minutes, a reading comprehension test was given. Although both groups were prompted by the zoning out question the same number of times, the people craving cigarettes said their mind was not focused three times more often than the smokers. But they were unable to catch their minds wandering on their own as often; they pressed the ZO key three times less frequently than the smoking group did. The craving group was more unaware that their minds were wandering during the study period. The researchers noted that the study results could have some important relevance to the safety of shift work operations where workers are forced to refrain from smoking for long periods of time.

Sobering up with Coffee

Many shift workers use alcohol to cope with working shifts, thinking it will help them sleep. And, most shift workers drink a lot of coffee. In this study (Temple University), looking at the impact of using caffeine to reverse the effects of alcohol, caffeine made mice more alert, but didn’t reverse the learning problems caused by the alcohol. The mice were given various doses, of caffeine and of ethanol (pure alcohol), separately and together, at levels known to cause intoxication. The doses of caffeine were the equivalent of one up to six or eight cups of coffee for humans. One group of mice was given only a saline solution. The researchers tested three key aspects of behavior: learning which part of a maze to avoid after exposure to a bright light or loud sound; anxiety level as reflected by the time spent exploring the maze’s open areas; and the mouse’s general ability to move around.

Caffeine, when taken alone, increased anxiety and reduced learning and movement ability. The mice given caffeine were significantly more inhibited, were more restricted in movement, and had more difficulty avoiding the brightly lit and loud areas of the maze. When the caffeine and ethanol were given together, the ethanol caused the mice to be less anxious. But, the caffeine did not reverse the ethanol’s negative effect on learning. So, the mouse was more relaxed, but less able to avoid threats. The researchers speculated that the combination of alcohol and caffeine could make people more likely to believe they weren’t drunk or impaired enough to have problems functioning.

©2009 Circadian Age, Inc. ‘Working Nights”

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