Daytime eating could improve mental health

Daytime eating could improve mental health
© iStock/RainStar

A new study has found that daytime eating could improve mental health, reducing the incidence of depression and anxiety-related moods.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital have found that mealtimes could be an important tool in battling mental health problems. They designed a study that simulated night work and tested the effects of daytime and night eating versus daytime eating only to understand if it could improve mental health.

They discovered that in the daytime and nighttime eating group, depression-like moods increased by 26% and anxiety-like moods by 16%. Participants in the daytime-only eating group did not experience increases, suggesting that mealtimes could influence moods and improve mental health.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Shift workers are affected most

Due to the nature of the job role, shift workers are affected by varying mealtimes. They account for up to 20% of the workforce in industrial societies and are directly responsible for many essential services.

As a result of shift work, employees may showcase a misalignment between their central circadian clock in the brain and daily behaviours, such as sleep/wake and fasting/eating cycles. Importantly, they also are at a 25% to 40% higher risk of depression and anxiety.

“Shift workers — as well as individuals experiencing circadian disruption, including jet lag — may benefit from our meal timing intervention,” said co-corresponding author Sarah L Chellappa, MD, PhD, who completed work on this project while at Brigham. Chellappa is now in the Department of Nuclear Medicine, University of Cologne, Germany.

“Our findings open the door for a novel sleep/circadian behavioural strategy that might also benefit individuals experiencing mental health disorders. Our study adds to a growing body of evidence finding that strategies that optimise sleep and circadian rhythms may help promote mental health.”

Studying if daytime eating may improve mental health

The researchers analysed 19 participants (12 men and seven women) in their randomised controlled study. Participants underwent a Forced Desynchrony protocol in dim light for four 28-hour “days,” and by the fourth “day” their behavioural cycles were inverted by 12 hours, simulating night work and causing circadian misalignment.

The participants were then randomly assigned one of two meal timing groups to under if either one improved mental health levels: the daytime and nighttime meal control group. They all consumed meals according to a 28-hour cycle (resulting in eating both during the night and day, which is typical amongst night workers), and the daytime-only meal group had meals on a 24-hour cycle. The team assessed depression- and anxiety-like mood levels every hour.

The team discovered that meal timing could improve mental health and mood levels. During the simulated night shift (day four), those in the daytime and nighttime meal control group had increased depression mood levels and anxiety levels compared to baseline (day 1). Contrastingly, the mood did not change in the daytime meal intervention group during the simulated night shift. They found that participants with a greater degree of circadian misalignment experienced more depression and anxiety. The study indicates that daytime eating could improve mental health.

“Meal timing is emerging as an important aspect of nutrition that may influence physical health,” said Chellappa. “But the causal role of the timing of food intake on mental health remains to be tested. Future studies are required to establish if changes in meal timing can help individuals experiencing depressive and anxiety/anxiety-related disorders.”

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