Meal timing may have a significant impact on mental health, including levels of depression and anxiety, suggests a new study by investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
This study aimed to investigate how meal timing affects mood by simulating night work and testing the impacts of eating during the day and at night versus eating during the day only.
The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate a substantial increase in depression-like and anxiety-like mood levels in participants of the daytime and nighttime eating group.
Study Design and Simulation
Frank A. J. L. Scheer, Ph.D., Director of the Medical Chronobiology Program, and his team enrolled 19 participants (12 men and 7 women) in a randomized controlled study.
The study involved a Forced Desynchrony protocol in dim light for four 28-hour “days” to simulate night work and induce circadian misalignment.
Participants were assigned to one of two meal timing groups: one that ate according to a 28-hour cycle (Daytime and Nighttime Meal Control Group), and another that had meals on a 24-hour cycle (Daytime-Only Meal Intervention Group).
Outcomes and Observations
Participants in the Daytime and Nighttime Meal Control Group experienced a 26% increase in depression-like mood levels and a 16% increase in anxiety-like mood levels compared to baseline, during the simulated night shift.
In contrast, participants in the Daytime-Only Meal Intervention Group did not experience such mood alterations, suggesting a significant link between meal timing and mood vulnerability, especially in individuals experiencing circadian misalignment like shift workers.
Implications and Applications
Shift workers and those experiencing circadian disruptions, including jet lag, could potentially benefit from meal timing interventions.
Shift workers, who represent up to 20% of the workforce in industrial societies, exhibit a 25 to 40% higher risk of depression and anxiety, underscoring the critical need for strategies that optimize sleep and circadian rhythms to promote mental health.
The findings also open the door for new strategies to aid individuals experiencing mental health disorders, adding to the growing body of evidence supporting the optimization of sleep and circadian rhythms as an integral part of mental health management.
The causal role of meal timing in mental health still needs further examination.
Future studies should seek to definitively establish whether alterations in meal timing can alleviate symptoms in individuals experiencing depressive and anxiety-related disorders.
Such research is critical to formulating targeted interventions and behavioral strategies that can mitigate the mood vulnerability associated with circadian disruptions.
The study by investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital adds pivotal evidence to the understanding of meal timing’s impact on mood and mental well-being, especially in the context of circadian misalignment.
While the timing of food intake emerges as a potential determinant of mental health, further research is crucial to unravel its causal role and implications fully.
The insights gained from such studies can pave the way for novel behavioral strategies that align circadian rhythms, optimize meal timing, and potentially minimize mood vulnerabilities and promote mental health in diverse populations.
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The research findings can be found in PNAS.
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