The Positive Implications Of Day Time Eating On Mental Health of Shift Workers


Approximately 8.6 million Americans work shifts, whether they work nights or alternate shifts during the week. Many see it as an essential step in their professional development, while others see it as a matter of survival. However, there is a growing concern that shift work has a negative impact on health.

Strong evidence suggests that shift work is related to several severe health conditions. For instance, shift workers are 25 to 40% more likely to experience sadness and anxiety, partly because of a misalignment between the daily environmental and behavioral cycles and the body’s internal clock. According to additional sources, shift employment raises the risk of metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes and ulcers.

However, despite irregular sleeping patterns, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital indicated a strategy that could aid shift workers in keeping their circadian alignment and avoiding glucose intolerance when working at night. This strategy is what we will focus on in this article.

Determining The Mental Health Benefit of Daytime Eating

In industrial societies, shift workers make up to 20% of the labor force and are directly in charge of various healthcare services, manufacturing work, and other critical services. Shift workers are more susceptible to anxiety and depression because of the frequent mismatch between their core circadian clock in the brain and daily actions, such as sleep/wake and fasting/eating cycles.

Therefore, evidence-based circadian therapies are needed to avoid mood vulnerability in shift work contexts. The researchers then investigated whether eating throughout the day protects against mood vulnerability even when doing simulated night work.

The research team did a parallel-design, randomized clinical trial with 19 individuals (12 men and seven women). For four 28-hour “days,” participants experienced a Forced Desynchrony (FD) regimen under low light, leading their behavioral cycles to be inverted by 12 hours by the fourth “day,” imitating night work and throwing their circadian rhythms out of whack.

The participants were assigned in a random way to one of two meal timing categories: 

  • Daytime and Nighttime Meal Control Group – meals depending on a 28-hour cycle, equivalent to eating during the night and day, which is typical among night workers.
  • Daytime-Only Meal Intervention Group – had meals on a 24-hour cycle equivalent to eating only during the day. 

The team measured depression- and anxiety-like mood levels every hour during the 4 FD days using computerized visual analog scales.

The researchers’ data revealed that the timing of their meals considerably impacted the subjects’ mood levels. There are further data that point to the importance of meal timing in elevating mood levels, stating:

  • The Daytime and Nighttime Meal Control Group displayed higher depression-like mood levels and anxiety-like mood levels, compared to baseline (day 1), during the simulated night shift (day 4).
  • The Daytime Meal Intervention Group did not experience mood swings throughout the simulated night shift.
  • A greater degree of circadian misalignment was associated with more depressive and anxious symptoms in the participants.

These results provided evidence that the timing of meals affected mood levels during simulated night work in a moderate to significant way and that these effects were related to the degree of internal circadian disruption.

According to the research, overnight work with daytime and midnight feeding reduced glucose tolerance, but nighttime work with daytime-only eating had no such effects. Therefore, the advantages of eating during the day on glucose tolerance may also apply to mood perception. Future research is necessary, the researchers noted, to determine the effects of meal time on people who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders.

In conclusion, the study adds to our understanding by proving that eating throughout the day may avoid mood vulnerability in shift work schedules and opening a new line of inquiry into a crucial part of nutrition that may impact physical health.

Journal Reference

Qian, J., Vujovic, N., Nguyen, H., Rahman, N., Heng, S. W., Amira, S., Scheer, F. A., & Chellappa, S. L. (2022). Daytime eating prevents mood vulnerability in night work. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(38). 

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