Those who eat on regular schedules have less mental health issues, study shows.
Eat and sleep: the rhythm of our day often revolves around these two essential functions. Unsurprisingly, a new study finds that the time at which a person eats has a substantial impact upon mood and cognitive function. Abnormal eating schedules may cause individuals to experience higher levels of depression and anxiety. The study was first published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on September 12 in response to how to best mitigate the effects of abnormal shift work. Shift workers, shockingly, “have a 25% to 40% higher risk of depression and anxiety partly due to a misalignment between the central circadian clock and daily environmental/behavioral cycles,” according to the study.
The research began by intentionally disrupting normal circadian rhythm by operating on a 28-hour day schedule and exposing participants only to dim light. These conditions mimicked the effects of working the night shift.
After experiencing circadian disruption, the participants were assigned to different meal timing groups. In the control group, meals were eaten during various hours of the night and day. The variable group relegated their meal schedules only during the day.
The control group which simulated the effects of working a nightshift and eating at all hours experienced a 26% increase in depression symptoms and 16% increase in anxiety levels. On the other hand, the group that ate only during daytime hours experienced no changes in overall mood.
In the United States, shift work has become a common practice within all industries. Shift workers represent all walks of life from fast food-chains offering a 24-hour drive thru to doctors and nurses operating in a hospital. More than 8.6 million Americans are shift workers. Many consider this type of work a steppingstone in their careers before obtaining the coveted 9-5.
Despite the prevalence of shift work and rotation, the risks of working at odd hours has been well-documented. On average, these workers experience insomnia, obesity, gastrointestinal diseases, and increased risk of personal injury.
The combination of these ailments has been coined “Shift Work Disorder” and is essentially a disorder in circadian rhythm as well as a diagnosable mental health condition. The disorder affects one in five shift workers in the United States.
Although some shift workers are police officers, hospital doctors or even salary workers, many who engage in this type of work are young people and immigrants who have fewer options to secure 9-5 positions. These workers tend to make little more than minimum wage.
The new study, co-authored by Frank Scheer, offers a solution to a fraction of the woes experienced by shift workers. Frank Scheer, Women’s Hospital’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders in Boston, said, “Future studies in shift workers and clinical populations are required to firmly establish if changes in meal timing can prevent their increased mood vulnerability.”
If correct, the study indicates meal timing may be a new best practice for shift workers and those experiencing jet lag to mitigate symptoms of Shift Work Disorder. Dr. Sarah Chellappa, a co-author of the study said, “Our findings open the door for a novel sleep/circadian behavioral strategy that might also benefit individuals experiencing mental health disorders.”
If Challappa and Scheer are correct, one can expect in the coming years to see an outcropping of circadian behavioral therapy used to treat not only shift workers but also other patients experiencing a mood disorder. For now, let’s avoid those pesky midnight snacks!