Mealtimes may mess with mental health

2 minute read

A study suggests night workers who eat only during the day have less anxiety and depression.

There never seems to be any good news for night workers, and the latest study suggests they can’t even enjoy a midnight snack without risking their mental health.

A team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard put about 20 people through a protocol simulating night work, randomly allocating half to eat during only the day and the other half to eat round the clock, as is normal for shift workers. The two groups’ food and all other conditions were identical.

They measured “depression-like and anxiety-like mood” every hour over four days, and found that in the night-and-day-eating group depression was on average 26% worse than participants’ individual baseline and anxiety 16% worse, whereas there was no significant effect on the group that ate only during the day.

Hyperglycaemia is a risk factor for depression, the authors say, citing work showing the role of insulin receptor signalling in anxiety and depression-like behaviours. And one of the authors has previously found reduced glucose tolerance when simulated shift workers ate during both day and night, but not when they ate only during the day, despite the disrupted sleep.

Another potential mechanism is that circadian misalignment can perturb and alter gut microbiota, which form “a critical hub for tryptophan/serotonin regulation, inflammation, oxidative stress, and neuroplasticity”.

Since shift workers have a 25 to 40% higher risk of depression and anxiety, and about 25% of employed individuals engage in shift work, advice to eat only during the day might alleviate a large mental health burden.

Now all you have to do is persuade night workers to lay off the snacks. Good luck with that.

If you see something that adds insult to injury, let know.

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