Apparently, the saying “You are what you eat” needs an update. When it comes to mood, you’re also when you eat.
If you don’t eat on a regular schedule, or at the right times of day, you’re more likely to feel anxious or depressed.
“This is important to recognize, because many individuals get busy during the work day, forget to eat when they normally would, or have work shifts that are incongruent with their body’s circadian clock,” says psychiatrist Carla Schnitzlein, DO, medical director of Natchaug Hospital, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network. “That all impacts our normal feeding and fasting cycles.”
And that impacts mood.
An unpredictable eating schedule can tank your mood.
So far, much of the research into nutrition and mental wellness has focused on the “what” of a person’s diet, like sugar (causes anxiety) versus fish (fends off depression).
But researchers from Canada’s Queen’s University have been focused on the “when.”
Their big takeaway, announced in spring 2022: Eating irregularly, and eating at times that don’t line up with your body’s circadian rhythm, can make you feel depressed and anxious. If you’re already dealing with a mood disorder, it can make those symptoms worse.
This makes perfect sense, says Dr. Schnitzlein. “Our bodies and brains need predictable routines. Part of that routine is when we eat,” she says. “To best function, our brains need consistency around mealtimes.”
The brain and gut have a special connection.
How, exactly, does diet affect mood? Scientists are still working out the details, but we have some general ideas. First, your brain consumes up to 25% of your body’s energy, and it’s especially sensitive to changes in calorie intake.
Second, over the past decade, we’ve learned that the brain and the gut are more connected than you might expect. Through a network of nerve pathways and tiny microbes, your digestive tract essentially talks with the emotional and cognitive centers of your brain.
And that’s not all.
Eating too close to bedtime disrupts sleep, and with it, mental wellness.
In their recent findings, the Canadian researchers say we should time our meals with the schedule of the sun, if possible. Their best-case scenario: Don’t eat after 7 pm.
Why? When you eat, you signal to your brain that it’s time to wake up and be active. As a result, eating late-night snacks makes it harder to fall asleep. Poor sleep can be disastrous for mental wellness, not to mention overall health.
“Sleep, mood and anxiety are so intertwined,” says Dr. Schnitzlein. “Over time, sleep disruption erodes our ability to manage stress and dramatically impacts our mental function.”
Routines, in general, are important for mood and mental health.
“Routines keep us on track,” says Dr. Schnitzlein. “When we incorporate healthy activities like regular mealtimes, exercise and bedtimes, it can help prevent or mitigate the effects on our mood.”
When we lose that sense of predictability, it affects our body physically, changing the levels of our hormones. That cascades into our mood.
So for one less hurdle between you and feeling great, embrace a better eating schedule. In food and in life, healthy rhythms equal happier days.