WHEN You Eat Can Affect Your Mental Health


Scott Henderson

‘Mood food’ is not a new concept when it comes to the symbiotic relationship between food and mental health. There are nutrients and meals that pertain to reduced anxiety and lower levels of depression. However, a new study suggests that when you eat can be just as important when it comes to regulating your mental health. According to the findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, eating during the day improves mood and reduces the likelihood of depressive symptoms developing. 

“Our findings provide evidence for the timing of food intake as a novel strategy to potentially minimise 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- author Dr Frank Scheer, Director of the Medical Chronobiology Program in Brigham’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, the team behind the study. “Our study brings a new ‘player’ to the table: the timing of food intake matters for our mood.” 

To reach their results, Dr Scheer and his team studied 19 participants who were divided into two groups. One half were placed under a ‘Forced Desynchrony’ protocol, consisting of regulated low-light 28-hour days, meaning that after 3 extended ‘days’ their circadian rhythms were out by 12 hours, simulating night work. This group ate both during the night and the day, mimicking the eating patterns of shift workers or travellers. The other ’control’ group remained on a 24-hour schedule, eating only during the day. 

Both groups had their moods assessed every hour to monitor levels of depression and anxiety. The results showed that those experiencing circadian misalignment (the nighttime and daytime eaters), experience a 26 per cent increase in depression-like characteristics, and a 16 per cent increase in anxiety-like characteristics. Those who only ate in the day experienced zero fluctuation in mood. 

The results are proving significant, given that 20 per cent of the workforce are shift workers, comprising many of our essential services such as hospitals, emergency response and factory work – all professions that are linked with a 40 per cent higher risk of depression and anxiety. Applying the acquired knowledge that eating during the day improves mood could promote the benefits of ordered eating, alleviating potential mental health risks. 

“Shift workers — as well as individuals experiencing circadian disruption, including jet lag — may benefit from our meal timing intervention,” said co-author author Dr Sarah Chellappa from 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 optimise sleep and circadian rhythms may help promote mental health.” 

Scott Henderson

Please note: Scott's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic, please consult your healthcare professional.

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