You get home from work, order some takeout. By the time the food arrives, it’s already late and you wind up eating right before heading off to sleep.
Recent research shows that eating at certain times of the day can be harmful to our brain’s capacity for learning and memory. All that late-night snacking might be doing much more damage than the calories it’s adding to your waistline.
The aforementioned research, conducted by Christopher Colwell, a professor at UCLA, was conducted on lab mice; its results apply equally to humans.
Our bodies operate on a circadian cycle, with certain times best suited for exertion, rest and sleep. The times our body sets for each pursuit are determined by hormones and enzymes released into our bloodstream. “We have this illusion that with the flip of a switch, we can work at any time, and part of that is eating at any time,” said Colwell. “But our biological systems — that’s not the way they work. They work based on having a daily rhythm.”
Any kind of disruption of the normal sleep cycle is detrimental, including activities like late-night eating and cardiovascular exercise. These disruptions, in turn, can affect our cognitive functions, including learning and memory.
Colwell’s experiment involved two groups of mice, one which was allowed to eat as it wished, and another which was forced to eat during normal sleeping hours. When the mice were later given learning tests involving memory and learning, the night-eating mice performed very poorly compared to the mice on a normal schedule. They even showed changes in their hippocampus, the section of the brain associated with long-term memory.
Professor Colwell warns that people who find themselves subject to work schedules that affect their sleep patterns for ongoing periods of time should weigh a possible change. “If you’re going on vacation, no big deal. But on the other hand, if you’re in a work environment where you find yourself chronically in situations where your internal clock is being mistimed, then you start having problems,” he said.
People who work in shifts, however, can still regulate their sleep. As long as a person sleeps for a regular amount of time, at the same hours, every day, the body will adjust. Change and randomness are the biggest enemies.
Try not to eat large amounts at least two hours before bedtime and you might notice better-quality sleep and increased energy in the morning.