Nurses, doctors, cashiers, waiters, security guards and many others are all familiar with the graveyard shift. The sunset to sunrise work schedule can be difficult to adjust to the body’s sleep instinct, not to mention a potentially lonely night.
There are also some health risks that come with disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm. These include physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral changes that occur on a 24-hour cycle and respond to natural cues like light. In fact, on average, night shift workers have a 25 to 40 percent higher risk of anxiety and depression.
The number of people doing shift work is not minimal. According to a 2020 review in the magazine Current Psychiatric Reports, about 25 percent of the workforce do 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 meals. Regular meals at specific times of the day can help with circadian alignment and improve or maintain emotional state. However, someone on the graveyard shift may eat in the middle of the night when the body thinks it should be sleeping and digesting.
A small study published in the last week Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined how eating habits affect emotional well-being. Understanding this connection can help researchers find ways to accommodate our biology and protect our emotional and mental health.
LONGEVITY HACKS is a regular series of Vice versa about the scientifically based strategies to live better, healthier and longer without medication. Get more in our hacks index.
Science in Action — A team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston recruited 19 healthy participants. Before the start of the study, the subjects regulated themselves in bed for eight hours at the same time every day for two weeks. In the three days leading up to the experiment, all participants 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 cues. During that time, they went through four 28-hour cycles, leaving them 12 hours off their circadian rhythm by day four. Both groups followed a sleep and rest schedule with fixed meal times. The participants were divided into two groups. One group received meals at their daytime and nighttime hours, the other only during the day. Both groups performed assigned work at night to simulate a night shift.
Once an hour over those four days, the researchers rated any signs of anxiety or depression in the participants using a method called computerized visual analog scales. In this method, participants were asked 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. Depression- and anxiety-like behaviors and moods emerged from participants’ self-reports on this continuum.
To the researchers’ surprise, the group that only ate during the day showed less anxiety and depression than the group that ate during the day and night.
Why it’s a hack – Sleep is often the first concern of night shift workers to disrupt the body’s natural rhythm. But there’s ample evidence that the hours we choose to eat are just as important.
“Meal timing is emerging as an important aspect of nutrition that can affect physical health,” writes Sarah Chellappa, a co-author of the article Vice versa. “However, the causal role of the timing of food intake on mental health in real shift workers remains to be tested.”
According to this article, there are many biological mechanisms at work as to why mealtime can affect emotional state. Hyperglycemia is a risk factor for depression. The gut microbiome also impacts mental well-being, and our gut microbes are sensitive to the regulation of serotonin, inflammation, and stress. Circadian disturbances are messing up these tiny metropolises. Perhaps staying up all night and sleeping during the day is unavoidable, but limiting mealtimes to only daylight hours can help prevent further depression.
How it affects longevity – At this point, it’s generally accepted that emotional well-being is just as crucial as physical well-being. But of course we will repeat it again.
Hack score out of 10 – 🍝🍜🍲🍛🍱 (eaten 5 out of 10 meals during the day)