Study finds association between mealtime and mental health

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A recent study found levels of anxiety and depression were increased when people ate during the nighttime compared to when they limited their eating to the daytime.

The study was published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and conducted by researchers from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. For their investigation, researchers sought to understand the relationship between mental health and mealtime for those who work night shifts.

According to the study, shift workers make up 20 percent of the work force in industrial societies, working in places like hospitals and factories. Shift workers often struggle to align their central circadian rhythm with their daily behaviors. Previous research has found that shift workers have a 25 to 40 percent increased risk of depression and anxiety.

For this investigation, researchers enlisted 19 participants, including 12 men and seven women. All participants underwent simulated night work, with their behavior cycles inverted by 12 hours. Participants were then split into two different groups. One group only ate their meals during the day and the other group ate their meals during the day and night.

Results showed that mealtimes had a significant effect on the participants’ moods. Those who ate during the nighttime had increased depression-like mood levels as well as anxiety-like mood levels compared to baseline. The daytime group, however, had no changes in depression or anxiety-like mood levels. The study also found that participants with a greater degree of circadian misalignment exhibited higher levels of depression and anxiety.

According to the study’s authors, these results suggest that meal timing intervention may help prevent feelings of depression and anxiety in night workers.

"Meal timing is emerging as an important aspect of nutrition that may influence physical health," said co-corresponding author Sarah Chellappa, MD, PhD, who is now working in the Department of Nuclear Medicine at the University of Cologne, Germany. "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."