Sleep and Eating – There’s a Time for Both

By Raj Trikha, M.S.

Ah, daylight savings time – a time where all of us groan just a bit louder with our alarms. Have you ever thought of where it came from? One fable describes Benjamin Franklin to be the culprit of Daylight Savings Time (DST). In his essay, titled “An Economical Project” published in the Journal de Paris in 1784, Franklin discusses measures to ‘save’ daylight; with most of his ideas revolving around waking up earlier in the day to increase one’s productivity. Satirical in nature, Ben Franklin recommended the taxation of shutters that block out sunlight and supported the ringing of church bells as soon as the sun rises, all so that he can save on candle wax! Humorous anecdotes aside, DST exists in much of Western society and plays a subliminal, however influential, role in our sleep-wake cycle.

Each day, our bodies surrender themselves to what is known as our circadian rhythm – the nearly 24-hour diurnal cycle that regulates many bodily functions. Not only does our circadian rhythm regulate the release of hormones and the productions of enzymes, but it can dictate what time of the day we have our fastest reaction time and when we are the most alert. These rhythms are regulated by a structure in our brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN; which can be found, not surprisingly, directly behind our eyes. The SCN responds to stimuli called Zeitgebers – givers of time. These stimuli include light sources, such as natural sunlight or wavelengths projected from phone and computer screens. But they can also be less traditional phenomena such as eating and socialization.

When we socialize and eat when we’re typically asleep, such as working the night shift, we produce a condition called circadian misalignment – meaning we go against our body’s natural circadian rhythms. And, unfortunately, we can’t just “catch up” on our sleep on the weekends, either. Social jet lag, or the mismatch in sleep-wake times between weekdays and weekends, has been demonstrated to significantly increase one’s risk of many diseases. Deficits in sleep don’t simply make you tired, it also disrupts and reduces sleep quality, increases our cravings for unhealthy and calorically dense foods, and impairs our ability to metabolize fat after a meal. These pathologies, built up over time due to chronic circadian misalignment, can increase one’s risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease. Shockingly, only 65% of Americans get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night, while 7.4% of Americans work the night shift. Thus, unlike heart disease and type 2 diabetes, circadian misalignment could be the “sleeper disease” that most people don’t even realize is affecting their health- and lifespan. However, what’s even more interesting, or disturbing (depending on your perspective), is observing the incredible changes that occur simply due to a one hour time change that occurs relentlessly each spring. Data coming from a survey of miners in 2009 demonstrate that DST results in, on average, a 40-minute loss in sleep time. This is due to the slight circadian misalignment that results from the sun rising a smidge earlier in the day than the previous day but us moving our clocks forward by a whopping 60 minutes. This seemingly “harmless” sleep debt increases the risk of injuries, the severity of criminal sentencing, number of heart attacks, and of course, plays a nasty role on your sleep routine. For now, we know that DST is going to continue to come and go each year. Thankfully, we can study its effects and learn how to combat it. One solution is to anticipate this abrupt time change, reducing its effects on your life, by slowly moving forward your sleep schedule 2-3 days in advance of DST.

Whether DST was yet another one of Ben Franklin’s hair brained ideas, or not, we might as well do our best to deal with the consequences. And save candlesticks!

Peer-edited by Johanna Bishop, MS, RDN, who works as a Wellness Specialist at Greeley-Evans School District 6 in Colorado.

You can read more about meal timing in Eating like Clockwork Might Depend More on the Clock than the Eating

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