Last updated June 21, 2017 at 5:01 pm
It’s not just what you eat that’s important, but when you eat too. New research has found that’s especially true for shift workers, where regular, planned meal times can help the body cope with constant changes to sleep patterns.
Spare a thought for shift workers. Our tireless hospital staff, firefighters, and police officers work hours that would make most of us crazy. Life seems to be on constant pause, battling consistent disruption to sleep patterns. This disruption can be a huge health burden and finding ways to assist can make all the difference. Researchers from the University of Surrey investigated ways to aid shift workers, by considering the internal body clock. All of us have an internal body clock, which act like our own personal assistant by sending messages, called circadian rhythms, to different parts of our body. These messages control sleepiness, hormone levels, body temperature and more.
For your body clock to operate effectively, many other cues within your body must also be aligned. Sunlight is one of the major cues that helps to maintain your body clock. Lots of sunlight tells your body to be alert, while the fall of darkness tells your body to sleep. The irregularity of shift work means that sometimes, night becomes the day, and shift worker sleep patterns revert between human and vampire. This constant change to sleep and exposure to sunlight, renders the body clock out-of-whack, increasing one’s risk of insomnia, depression, metabolic disorders and other poor health outcomes. It’s therefore vital to try and reset the body clock as quick as possible.
The researchers wanted to know how meal times might help to reset the body clock. The idea of studying meal times was based upon the knowledge that circadian rhythms and metabolism are heavily linked. But the exact nature of the link was unknown. To test this, the researchers took 10 young men and measured a variety of metabolic factors as meal times varied. Initially, they were put on a diet where breakfast was served 30 minutes after waking, with lunch and dinner at defined intervals after. Once the participants got used to this habit, their meal times were changed and instead, breakfast was served 5 hours after waking. Interestingly, the young men didn’t report any changes in sleepiness or (somehow) hunger levels, but a closer look revealed some major changes inside their bodies. The researchers found that delaying breakfast, lunch and dinner by 5 hours from the usual time, altered the regulation of blood sugar levels by 5 hours as well. This means that meal times are another cue that the body uses to maintain its internal body clock.
For shift workers, this research has very real and practical outcomes. By having regular and planned meals times, the metabolic cues are kept in check, which may help the rest of the body adapt to changes to sleep patterns. The quicker the body clock is resynchronised, the better the health outcomes. But this research isn’t just for shift workers; it can help those who frequently change time zones and suffer from jetlag. It also helps to remind us that our bodies truly are complex beasts, helping us get along with our day without so much as a tick-tock.
Check out the original research here.