The way you eat is important in health and disease. But not only what and how much we eat, but also when we eat has an impact. In recent years, science has focused on unraveling the phenomenon of chrononutrition, which explains the relationship between temporal eating patterns, circadian rhythms, and metabolic health. And some research has already highlighted the importance for the body of good synchronization of the timing of food intake with our circadian rhythm, which is the 24-hour biological clock that regulates internal bodily functions. Scientists have found that skipping breakfast, for example, increases the risk of obesity, and eating late also increases weight gain.
Humans have a sort of central clock that keeps time according to the body. At first glance, it’s a ball barely a millimeter located in the hypothalamus, but these tiny molecular devices are able to tell time to the rest of the body and, in conjunction with tiny tissue-independent chronometers, anticipate and prepare for what’s going on. What has to come to the cells, like eating at noon or going to sleep at night. “Our body has a schedule and this central clock is not isolated, but synchronized with the outside, mainly through light and darkness, but also between eating and fasting or with moments of activity and rest” Explains Marta Garoulet, professor of physiology at the University of Murcia and expert in chrononutrition.
Respecting the circadian rhythm and all the biological changes that follow the 24-hour cycle is essential for health. To the extent that disruptions in these biorhythms can alter basic vital functions, the scientists explain: “We are diurnal animals, we are made to sleep at night and we do not eat anything while we sleep. We were created to eat and move around during the day. So, if your body believes there are lights on at night or that you are eating, it is receiving conflicting information.
Through the central clock, peripheral chronometers (those in organs and tissues), lifestyle habits, behavior, and the environment, internal biorhythms are regulated. Garoullet explains, “A person who is well versed with his chronometer is one whose watches are all synchronous and in accordance with the changes of light and darkness.” Now, synchronization failures can occur in the central clock, in peripherals, or in behaviors; And this can cause chronic disruptions, which in the long run, the scientists say, “are related to diseases such as obesity, cancer, depression or metabolic changes.” This is clearly seen in shift workers or night workers, who are examples of people whose behavior is out of sync with their internal clock.
Lunch time, a synchronizer
The eating moment, like light, is a clear modulator of internal clocks, says Garoulet. “Meal timing is a synchronizer of the peripheral clocks of food-related organs such as the liver and pancreas. “If you eat at the wrong time, all the organs that are preparing to receive food do not react well: because receiving food is a cathartic effect for the body and it has to prepare,” says the expert, Which goes into more detail about this Explanation: “It looks like they’re coming. You have 100 people coming to your house to eat and they don’t tell you.” The anticipation that food is going to enter the body helps it respond well and when it doesn’t, there are changes at the metabolic level. Is.
The body is programmed in a way and the organs function accordingly. That is, in a different way during the 24 hours of the day: if they have to work at a time that they did not plan, they do not react in the same way. For example, the pancreas is dormant at night and more active during the day. “Eating late at night has a very clear effect: it coincides with the secretion of melatonin, which is the hormone that prepares you for sleep, along with insulin, which is the hormone that helps distribute food. Does. But, in the presence of melatonin, insulin secretion is reduced and tolerance to sugar and carbohydrates is impaired,” says the chronobiologist. He and his team discovered over a decade ago that eating late when you’re on a diet can affect your ability to lose weight.
Lidia Damiel, researcher at the Madrid Institute of Advanced Studies (IMDEA Food) and the Obesity and Nutrition Network Research Center (Cyberobn), emphasizes that “the body is not equally prepared at any time of the day to manage food “. Therefore, when you eat is a factor determining a person’s chronotype, he explains: “When you eat is as important as what you eat. If what you eat is good and healthy, but the timing is not right, then you are not getting the benefits that that food could give you in the same quantity.
Quality sleep and fasting
In practice, the health impacts may be global. “Once the timing is set, it can affect everything,” summarizes Garoullet. An editorial in Nutritional Limits Compiled a few months ago, chronic eating behaviors have been implicated in “numerous health disorders, including sleep disorders, cardiometabolic risk, energy imbalance, dysregulation of body temperature, weight gain, and psychosocial Inconvenience involved.”
Another scientific review in 2020 recalled that “experimental and clinical studies have consistently shown that alterations in circadian rhythms can promote the development and progression of digestive pathologies such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel diseases.” Similarly, research on rats was published in the journal in 2023. Science Synchronizing food with the circadian clock was reported to reduce obesity: animals that ate during active phases of their circadian cycle burned more calories and had a reduced risk of developing the disease.
Disruption in natural meal timings also affects sleep. “Sleep is an external synchronizer, like mealtime, and it sets your clocks; But, at the same time, it’s also a result of your internal clock and there can be changes, such as eating late, that can alter sleep because you’re not digesting properly,” Garoulet says.
In the context of chrononutrition, fasting also makes its way into the figure and its effect on modulating internal clocks. “Time-restricted intake, meaning the number of hours of eating is reduced, is being studied. What we know is that when fasting is done early, it works better than if we do it in the afternoon and delay breakfast,” explains Damiel. The scientist defends that fasting helps “reset” the body and “helps launch epigenetic mechanisms that help regulate nutrient metabolism.”
But there are many doubts that remain to be resolved, he explains, and the scientific community is not clear, for example, “whether fasting (limiting the time of intake) is equivalent to calorie restriction (reducing the number of calories under is better than.” Plus, he says, because there are so many different fasting protocols, “it is not known which one is best because it is unknown how each one affects the individual’s circadian rhythm.”
no magic recipe
Scientists caution that there is no magic recipe or infallible recommendations about the appropriate time to eat. Garoullet assures that there are more than 300 identified genes that define each person’s tendency to be more of a morning or evening person: “There are people who eat at 12 o’clock at night, because their biological night clock is at 1 am. Well, it has no effect on that. “Each person has different biological nights and the time they eat will affect them based on their internal chronotype.” For this reason, Damiel Emphasizes that “it’s very hard to give universal advice. But there are two general messages: don’t eat late and don’t have dinner too close to bedtime,” says Damiel.
However, chrononutrition is an expanding science and there are still issues that remain to be resolved. For example, Garoullet explains: “It is not clear nor are there studies that confirm that changing the hours of intake improves the prognosis of obesity.” Damiel, for his part, points to another major mystery that remains to be solved: “There is a lot of information about how the circadian rhythm is regulated, but the difficulty now lies in learning to modify it according to our metabolic convenience. Has been. The work is to look at how, through nutrition, the clocks are aligned: what dietary protocols can be applied to set our clocks.
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