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If you have a medical emergency at 2 a.m. and call 911, who answers the phone or comes to your aid?
What if you’re traveling after midnight and need to pop into a roadside 24-hour restaurant or convenience store? Who’s there to serve you?
And who’s restocking warehouses all over the country and transporting goods so we have the convenience of getting what we need when we need it?
Night shift workers.
In situations like these, and in factories and plants all over the U.S., over nine million Americans (about 6 percent of all workers) work between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Compared to early risers, night owls are as much as twice as likely to develop depression.
But when night workers take their meals could make a big difference, according to a new study.
Nighttime eating and depression
There’s been plenty of research into ways to help night workers minimize both physical and mental health risks, most of it having to do with using light to adjust their circadian clock and avoiding vitamin D deficiency due to less time in the sun.
Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston wanted to find out whether the eating habits of night workers could play a role in their mental health and if confining eating to daytime hours could help prevent depression and other mood disorders.
The researchers already had evidence that nighttime meals can disrupt metabolism, and that this could be why shift workers tend to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and more dangerous visceral fat than daytime workers.
So, over the course of two weeks, 19 study participants followed a schedule and activities that simulated night work. Half the group ate their meals during both day and nighttime hours, while the other half ate only during the day.
In every other way, everything was the same for both groups, including calories, how long they slept, how active they were and their exposure to light.
When “night workers” were fed during the day and at night, the researchers saw a 26 percent increase in depressive moods and a 16 percent increase in anxiety-like moods, as compared to the baseline at the study’s start.
Those who ate only during the day reported no mood changes.
Other reasons to stop eating at 7 p.m.
As far as health goes, late-night eating is a recipe for disaster.
For starters, about half of us carry a gene that makes late-night eating a recipe for diabetes.
Research has also shown that late-night meals can affect the brain’s hippocampus and lower your ability to learn and concentrate.
And if you’re looking to lose some weight, it’s probably a better idea to do your heavier eating at breakfast rather than later in the day.
The moral of this story is that making the effort to gradually shift your eating habits so that you do your “heavy eating” before 7 p.m. is well worth the effort.
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Daytime eating prevents mood vulnerability in night work — Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
The relationship of body mass index and waist-hip ratio with shift work among military personnel in 2016 — Journal of Occupational Health and Epidemiology