Time-Restricted Eating: New Hope for Shift Workers

biological aging epigenetics heart disease mental health Apr 19, 2023
Man holding knife and fork with clock

Shift workers are especially vulnerable to health issues because they are disrupting their circadian rhythm. Heart disease, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, cancer ... the list of diseases associated with shift workers is very long. Ideally, no one would work during the nighttime hours that our biology is designed to be sleeping. But for many, that is not possible. 

As someone who worked all sorts of crazy hours as an ObGyn physician for 15 years, including shifts longer than 48 hours without sleep, I used to be included as one of the approximately 30% of the U.S. population that does overnight shiftwork. This includes healthcare workers, first responders, maintenance and critical support personnel who often work regular nighttime or 24-hour shifts. Even new parents and others whose sleep is regularly disrupted for 3 hours a night can show similar health trends.

Eating healthy and exercising regularly certainly can help, but often they aren't enough. But other than give up work, or avoid becoming a new parent, there has been little focus on finding effective ways that shift workers can counteract the impact of regular disruption of circadian rhythm. Until now.


The Body's Clock


Every cell and organ system in our body has its own circadian rhythm. They are all coordinated by our body's central clock, so that they operate within the proper timeframes to coordinate all of our biological functions. This includes eating and digesting our food.

Even though we think of sleep as resting, it is very much an active time for our biological systems. We repair cells and tissues, clean up the debris from the day's processes, process memories and experiences. Our biochemistry that regulates our blood sugar and cholesterol, immune system, antioxidant defenses, mood and more is dependent on these circadian rhythm processes. When we throw that off by working at night, over time we start to show the effects of our biochemistry not running smoothly.

People with SNPs in genes involved in any of these processes, including circadian rhythm, are even more predisposed to developing health issues with shift work. Even a person's Human Design contributes too. Supporting each person's individual needs can definitely help counteract some of the effects of shift work. But until now there haven't been many studies looking at simple measures that anyone can take.


A Glimmer of Hope


A new study shines light on the impact of time-restricted eating. Based upon studies of circadian rhythm and the timing of digestive functions, it appears that restricting eating to a narrower window of time better matches how our bodies are designed to operate. Most studies suggest having a period of at least 12 hours without eating can significantly improve our biological health. To flip this around, fasting for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight, is associated with significant improvements.

This is something that has long been practiced within ancient healing modalities including Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. But in Western societies with access to foods 24/7, we often see patterns of eating that involve eating from morning until late at night - often greatly diminishing our overnight fasting time to less than 8 hours.


Time-Restricted Eating


Time-restricted eating has been studied in the context of longevity as well as with metabolic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and even emotional health, with intermittent fasting being a common variation. Because it improves our underlying biochemistry, it improves the functioning of all systems. While some proponents advocate a daily rhythm of 6-8 hours eating/16-18 hours fasting, benefits can be seen starting at only 12 hours of fasting overnight. These improvements can also be seen reflected in Epigenetic Biological Age, and this is one of many strategies I use as well.

But working overnight can make this very difficult to achieve for shift workers. And would this even work for them?

It turns out it does. A recent study with firefighters who worked 24 hour shifts showed that reducing the window of time for eating improved multiple markers of health in just 12 weeks. Prior to the study, their window of eating spanned about 14 hours. The goal was to restrict this to 10 hours, and they overall succeeded, reducing the 14 hours to 11 on average. 

Now, this study was done on a particular group - men who are firefighters. They ate all their meals between 9am and 7pm, working their night shifts without eating. Overall they reported feeling better, with more energy and positive mood, and didn't actually mind the time-restricted eating once they got into a new routine.

While we can't directly extrapolate to all populations and situations, including those who work at night and sleep during the day, it's a great first step in addressing this huge health risk and how we can help people counteract its effects. 

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The information provided through this website is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not providing medical or psychological advice, diagnosis or treatment, nor is it intended to or does it create a physician-patient relationship. Dr. Roberta Kline is a licensed physician in the State of New Mexico. Newsletter subscribers and website visitors are receiving general information about health concepts and services and should not act upon this information without seeking professional medical advice. All newsletter subscribers have joined through a request for information initiated by the subscriber with the opportunity to opt-out at any time. Testimonials shown on this website are real examples of client results and based on quantifiable and verifiable facts.