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Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health

Health Symposium Recap: Physiological Measures of Habitual Sleep and Future Stress with Itamar Lerner, PhD

The 2nd Annual Southwest Centers Occupational Health Research Symposium was held on June 10, 2022. The virtual event, a collaboration between the Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (SWCOEH) and the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education (SW Ag Center). This series will highlight presentations made by Pilot Projects Research Training Awardees who were selected and awarded by the SWCOEH.

In Part I of our series, we discuss “Physiological Measures of Habitual Sleep as Predictors of Future Stress Response”. The study was led by Itamar Lerner, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology, at The University of Texas at San Antonio. What are the largest findings of your study so far?

Itamar Lerner: “Our research examines whether habitual sleep patterns can predict future sensitivity to stressors in a population of emergency responders. The main finding so far is that individuals who have a higher ratio of Rapid-Eye-Movement (REM) sleep out of their habitual, day-to-day total sleep time exhibit lower levels of stress responses when facing real-world stressors. This is consistent with our ongoing hypothesis, based on lab findings, that habitual REM sleep acts as a protectant against excessive stress responses. This result, however, is preliminary; it is based on only 10 firefighters and only on stressors caused during their training in the academy before moving to fieldwork. The study will continue to monitor them, and additional emergency responders, for the year following beginning fieldwork to confirm the initial results.” Does your study show in any way that a general lack of sleep leads to traumatic events, such as a car accident, lower health quality, etc., that may be caused by a lack of sleep?

Lerner: “The study suggests that a lack of regular, day-to-day sleep (or, more accurately, lack of enough REM sleep) may cause an individual to be more sensitive in case a trauma occurs, so the mental effects of the trauma might last longer and be more debilitating. It's about how the brain copes with trauma if it occurs, not what causes the trauma to begin with.” What can you tell us about the participation of the firefighters and paramedics who participated in the study?

Lerner: “Since the study is ongoing and a large portion of it is online, we have not yet received much feedback. There was some disappointment among several potential subjects who expressed interest in taking part in the study but did not pass the initial exclusion and inclusion criteria during screening. We did have fluctuations in initial interest from one training cycle to another (e.g., 10 firefighters were recruited in one cycle; but only 1 in the next). But other than that, among all those who started, there was no attrition, and all subjects are still in the study. I see that as a positive sign and that we hit the right balance between requirements and compensation.”


The SWCOEH provides a variety of graduate-level training opportunities for occupational and environmental health professionals through our industrial hygiene, occupational and environmental medicine, occupational epidemiology, and Total Worker Health®.