Time-restricted eating improved the health of firefighters by reducing the risks of heart disease linked with shift work, according to a new study.
Working long shifts, up to 24 hours at a stretch, could be behind a number of health issues, including higher rates of diabetes and heart attacks.
But firefighters who stuck to a time-restricted eating plan—wherein the time of day determines when a person can eat, in this case 10 hours daily—saw those risks reduced.
Researchers say that their findings, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, could help others who work long hours, such as military personnel, nurses, transportation drivers, as well as new parents, whose schedules go awry when caring for a new baby.
Little previous research had been done to identify lifestyle interventions that could help prevent the health risks of working shifts.
But a new American study found that time-restricted eating (TRE) could be safely practiced in shift workers.
The research team also showed that TRE provided benefits to participants who had indications of cardiometabolic disease, a group of common but often preventable conditions including heart attack, stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Called the Healthy Heroes Study, the intervention focused on firefighters in San Diego, California.
“Shift work is much more common than many people think,” said co-corresponding author Professor Satchidananda Panda, of the Salk Institute.
“Not only does shift work contribute to an increased burden of disease in our society, but it makes it hard for people with existing conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease to manage them.”
Co-corresponding author Professor Pam Taub, a cardiologist at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, said, “Overall, firefighters are a pretty healthy group of people, but we found that for those who had underlying cardiometabolic risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and hyperglycemia, there was some benefit to TRE, especially in terms of improvement in glucose levels and blood pressure.
Professors Panda and Taub have collaborated on research into TRE for several years. In January 2020, they published a study in Cell Metabolism that found that restricting the time of eating to 10 hours a day reduced body weight and improved blood pressure and cholesterol levels in people with metabolic syndrome.
In the current study, the team recruited San Diego firefighters, who work 24-hour shifts. There were 137 firefighters ultimately enrolled in the study; 70 followed TRE, eating all of their meals within a 10-hour time window, and 67 were in the control group.
All the participants were encouraged to follow a Mediterranean diet that was rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. The subjects were followed for 12 weeks.
A barrier to conducting research studies with shift workers has been the subjects’ inability to attend the lab during regular business hours. The researchers got around that by going to the fire stations to apply wearable devices on the participants to collect their activity, sleep, and blood glucose levels.
They also customized an app that allowed the firefighters to log their food and sleep and answer study surveys; the app also enabled the researchers to send study materials and to guide the participants on following the recommended lifestyle.
The researchers found that the time-restricted eating pattern was both safe and feasible, as participants didn’t report any problems with concentration, reaction times, or other issues and their quality of life generally improved.
“Even those who were healthy with no underlying cardiometabolic risk factors had improvements in quality of life and in VLDL, which is a form of bad cholesterol,” said Taub.
The research team wants to conduct similar studies with healthcare workers.
Panda added, “Humans have been living with circadian rhythms for at least 200,000 years, and these rhythms clearly have a profound effect on us.
“Shift workers, whether they are astronauts or custodians, are vital to our society. It’s time to think about how we might help them improve their health.
“Doctors and researchers are always thinking about the magic pill that can cure or reduce disease.
“Our study showed that shift workers with high blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol can benefit from a simple lifestyle intervention called time-restricted eating.”
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