It turns out that when you eat may just be as critical as what you eat, particularly when it comes to keeping your mental health in check, according to a new study. 

A new study by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital has found that eating during the daytime is more beneficial to mental health compared to eating at night which accompanies a higher risk of depression and anxiety symptoms. The research which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that those who ate both during the daytime and nighttime had their depression-like mood levels increased by about 26 percent and anxiety-like mood levels by about 16 percent, whereas those who ate only during the daytime didn’t experience any increase. 

Findings from this study add to the mixed bag of research that daytime eating is likely to prevent mood vulnerability in shift work schedules 

“Our findings provide evidence for the timing of food intake as a novel strategy to potentially minimize mood vulnerability in individuals experiencing circadian misalignment, such as people engaged in shift work, experiencing jet lag, or suffering from circadian rhythm disorders,” they write. 

In the first place, shift workers represent about 20 percent of the workforce in industrial societies. Shift workers have a 25 to 40 percent higher risk of suffering from depression and anxiety. Oftentimes, they also do experience a misalignment between the central circadian clock and daily environmental/behavioral cycles such as sleep/wake and fasting/eating cycles. Usually, this circadian misalignment can have a negative effect on mood, not to mention the emotional well-being of both non-shift workers and shift workers.

Over 19 participants consisting of 12 men and 7 women with an average age of 27 years were enrolled in the study. Participants completed a Forced Desynchrony (FD) protocol in dim light for a period of 28h which spanned 4 “days”. This was done so that at the end of the fourth day, the participant’s behavioral cycles were distorted by 12 hours, imitating night work and leading to circadian misalignment. 

Participants were then divided and randomly assigned into 2 groups. The first group was the Daytime and Nighttime Meal Control Group whose meals were given 28 hourly (i.e. eating during the day and at night which is common among night workers). And the Daytime-only Meal Intervention (DMI) who were given meals following a 24-h cycle, hence resulting in meals eaten only during the day. They then examined depression-like and anxiety-like moods every hour over the 4 FD days period.

By the end of the study, the team found that meal timing did significantly alter the participant’s mood levels. They observed that during the simulated night work on the 4th day, those in the Daytime and Nighttime Meal Control Group experienced more depression and anxiety compared to baseline. On the other hand, those in the Daytime-only Meal Intervention group experienced no significant changes in their mood. 

From their results, they were able to draw their conclusion on the fact that meal timing has moderate-to-large effects on mood levels. And most importantly, this effect varied depending on the extent or degree of internal circadian misalignment. This shows that those with a larger degree of exposure to circadian misalignment experienced even higher depressive and anxiety states.

While the study authors suggest that this meal timing intervention will likewise benefit people suffering from mental health disorders, they still see the need for future studies to further validate their findings.

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