Your Mealtime Influences Your Physical And Mental Health

June 15, 2023; Unhurry Expert Research Team

Meal timing influences mood vulnerability. Eating at nighttime increases depression and anxiety levels versus eating only during the daytime.

The time of meals may have an impact on mental health, including levels of depression and anxiety-related mood, according to a new Brigham and Women’s Hospital study. A study that investigated the effects of eating both during the day and at night versus solely during the day was created by a founding member of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system.

Researchers discovered that among individuals in the daytime and midnight eating groups, anxiety- and depressive-like mood levels rose by 16% and 26%, respectively. This rise was not observed in the group of participants who only ate during the day, indicating that meal timing may affect mood vulnerability. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the findings.

The timing of food intake matters for our mood

“Our findings provide evidence for the timing of food intake as a novel strategy to potentially minimize mood vulnerability in individuals experiencing circadian misalignment, such as people engaged in shift work, experiencing jet lag, or suffering from circadian rhythm disorders,” said co-corresponding author Frank A. J. L. Scheer, PhD, Director of the Medical Chronobiology Programme in the Brigham’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders. Future research in shift workers and clinical populations is necessary to definitively determine whether adjusting mealtimes can lessen their heightened vulnerability to mood disorders. “Our research adds a new ‘player’ to the equation till then: the timing of our food intake affects our mood,” adds Scheer.

In industrial societies, shift workers make up to 20% of the labour force and are directly in charge of various healthcare services, manufacturing activities, and other critical services. The brain’s primary circadian clock and daily activities, such as sleep/wake and fasting/eating cycles, are frequently out of sync with shift workers. They also run a 25 to 40% higher risk of developing anxiety and depression, which is significant.

What are Circadian Rhythms and Circadian Clock?

Circadian Rhythms are internally driven cycles that rise and fall during the 24-hour day. It helps you fall asleep at night and wakes you up in the morning. The master circadian clock in the brain synchronizes and controls these cycles so they work together.

The circadian clock has an internally driven 24-hour rhythm that tends to run longer than 24 hours but resets every day by the sun’s light/dark cycle. The internal body clock sets the timing for many circadian rhythms, which regulate processes such as

  • Sleep/wake cycles
  • Hormonal activity
  • Body temperature rhythm
  • Eating and digesting

Optimizing sleep and circadian rhythms may help promote mental health

“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 the 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 optimize sleep and circadian rhythms may help promote mental health.”

Scheer, Chellappa, and colleagues recruited 19 participants for the randomized controlled study—12 males and 7 women. For four 28-hour “days,” participants experienced a Forced Desynchrony procedure in low light, causing their behavioural cycles to flip by 12 hours by the fourth “day,” imitating night work and throwing their circadian rhythms out of whack. The daytime and nighttime meal control group, which had meals on a 28-hour cycle (resulting in eating both during the day and night, as is typical for night workers), and the daytime-only meal intervention group, which had meals on a 24-hour cycle (resulting in eating only during the day), were given to participants at random. Every hour, the team measured the presence of depression- and anxiety-like moods.

Meal timing significantly affected the participants’ mood levels

The researchers discovered that participants’ mood levels were greatly impacted by when they ate. Daytime and nighttime meal control group members experienced higher depression- and anxiety-like mood levels throughout the simulated night shift (day 4) compared to baseline (day 1). The Daytime Meal Intervention Group, in comparison, experienced no changes in mood throughout the simulated night shift. A greater degree of circadian misalignment was associated with more depressive and anxious symptoms in the participants.

“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.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

Jingyi Qian, Nina Vujovic, Hoa Nguyen, Nishath Rahman, Su Wei Heng, Stephen Amira, Frank A. J. L. Scheer, Sarah L. Chellappa. Daytime eating prevents mood vulnerability in night work. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2022; 119 (38) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2206348119

Page citation

Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Daytime eating may benefit mental health: A study on meal timing found that eating at night increased depression and anxiety-related mood levels among participants.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 September 2022. <>.

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