Nurses, doctors, cashiers, servers, security guards and many others are all familiar with graveyard switching. The sunset-to-sunrise work schedule can be difficult to adjust when it goes against the body’s instinct for sleep, not to mention a potentially lonely night.
There are also health risks that come with disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm. These include physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral changes that operate on a 24-hour cycle and respond to natural cues like light. In fact, night workers have, on average, a 25-40% higher risk of anxiety and depression.
The number of people doing shift work is not small. According to a 2020 review in the journal Current psychiatric reports, about 25 per cent of the workforce performs shift work. This leaves a significant portion of the population particularly vulnerable to poor emotional well-being.
Part of how the body regulates itself in this 24-hour cycle is through meals. Eating regular meals at certain times of the day can help with circadian alignment, improve or maintain emotional state. However, someone from the graveyard crew can eat in the middle of the night, when the body thinks it should be sleeping and digesting.
A small study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the impact of eating habits on emotional well-being. Understanding this connection can help researchers find ways to respond to our biology and protect our emotional and mental health.
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Science in action — A team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston recruited 19 healthy participants. Prior to the start of the study, subjects regulated themselves to eight hours in bed at the same time every day for two weeks. During the three days preceding the experiment, the participants all received three meals a day and a snack.
Then came the forced desync.
Each participant lived alone in a private, dimly lit environment with no time markers. During this period, they went through four 28-hour cycles so that by day four they would be 12 hours away from their circadian rhythm. Both groups followed a sleep and rest schedule that included set meal times. In this aspect, the participants were divided into two groups. One group received meals during what would be their day and night, and the other received meals during the day only. Both groups performed the assigned work at night to simulate a night shift.
Once every hour during those four days, the researchers assessed the participants for any signs of anxiety or depression using a method called computerized visual analog scales. This method asked participants to rate their emotional state by marking an area on a spectrum between two opposite feelings, such as sad and happy or excited and calm. Depressive and anxious-like behaviors and moods stemmed from how participants rated themselves on this continuum.
To the researchers’ surprise, the group that only ate during the day had lower levels of anxiety and depression than the group that ate day and night.
Why it’s a hack — Sleep is often the first concern of night shift workers as a means of getting rid of the body’s natural rhythm. But there is plenty of evidence that the times we choose for meals are just as important.
“Meal timing is becoming an important aspect of nutrition that can influence physical health,” writes Sarah Chellappa, co-author of the article. Reverse. “However, the causal role of timing of food intake on mental health in real-life shift workers remains to be tested.”
According to this article, many biological mechanisms explain why the timing of meals can influence emotional state. Hyperglycemia, on the other hand, is a risk factor for depression. The gut microbiota also impacts mental well-being, and our gut microbes are sensitive to serotonin regulation, inflammation, and stress. Circadian disruption disrupts these tiny metropolises. Staying awake all night and sleeping during the day may be unavoidable, but limiting mealtimes to only daylight hours can help prevent further depression.
How it affects longevity — It is well recognized at this point that emotional well-being is as crucial as physical well-being. But we will of course repeat it.
Hack score out of 10 — 🍝🍜🍲🍛🍱 (5/10 meals taken during the day)
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