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That midnight snack may be killing you, study finds

If you’re one who likes a midnight snack to tide you over until breakfast, the news isn’t great, as research shows that eating just before bed is a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.

The perils of staying up late aren’t just related to a lack of sleep and grumbling about it the next day, as research has shown that playing fast and loose with the body’s natural circadian rhythms can put you at risk for a range of health troubles. Shift work is notoriously bad for you, for example, with numerous studies showing that flipping around one’s day for night brings with it an increased risk of cancers, cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal problems.

The new study looks at the dietary link in the chain, focusing specifically on the absorption of fats known as triglycerides when meals are taken before sleeping. Triglycerides are lipids that gets stored in fat cells of the body usually as a result of eating more calories than one burns, especially those of the carbohydrate variety.

The harmful impact of triglycerides has been well-observed, with having a high triglyceride count being a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes. To that end, researchers with the National Autonomous Institute of Mexico studied the triglyceride production in rats who were fed right before their rest period, finding a significant uptick in blood fat level (known as hyperlipidaemia) as a result.

“Energy metabolism follows a diurnal pattern, mainly driven by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), and disruption of circadian regulation has been linked to metabolic abnormalities,” write the study’s authors. “Consequently, disturbance of the biological clock might be an important risk factor contributing to the development of hyperlipidaemia.”

The researchers say that their results speak to the importance of paying respect to the body’s natural cycles. “The fact we can ignore our biological clock is important for survival,” says lead author Dr. Ruud Buijs of the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology at the National Autonomous Institute, in a statement. “We can decide to sleep during the day when we are extremely tired, or we run away from danger at night. However, doing this frequently – with shift work, jet lag, or staying up late at night – will harm our health in the long term especially when we eat at times when we should sleep.”

Sleep science is gaining in prominence these days, as sleep deprivation continues to be a dominating theme of the modern, connected world where distracting screens are never far from reach.

“Many of us are working more erratic hours and sleeping less, while the pace of our lives seems to be accelerating,” says neuroscientist Adrian Owen who is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University in London, Ontario, in a press release. “We know that this sleep disruption affects us in some ways, and that some people feel the impact more than others, but there’s surprisingly little research into exactly how our brains deal with these sleep deficits,” said Owen.

Owen is head of a novel experiment, dubbed the “world’s largest sleep study,” an online project which is currently accepting volunteers. Participants track their sleep over a three-day period and complete a group of tests on their brain functioning, uploading the results. “The Internet has provided us with this unprecedented opportunity to involve the public in scientific research – research that can draw out a gold-mine of sleep and brain data we’ve never before had access to,” said Owen.

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.
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