Chronobiology & Nutrition

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

Chronobiology is the natural cycles in biology, including those that our body goes through. They can be altered by many different aspects, and in this lesson, we will explore how nutrition can change our chronobiology.

What is Chronobiology?

As it gets dark outside, you may notice that you get more tired. Or, perhaps you have heard that it is important to go to bed early. What makes our body need sleep during the night, but not typically during the day? Our sleep-wake cycles and many other time-sensitive cycles are part of our chronobiology, or natural cyclic phenomena that occur in biology, like in our body. When we talk about chronobiology, we are typically most familiar with our sleep cycles, but our body also has many other cyclic cycles (such as cycles that our liver and other organs go through).

We are often familiar with the night and day cycles that our body goes through, but many other cycles are important as well
Day and night

There are many different things that change chronobiology; in this lesson, we will be focusing on the impact that nutrition has on chronobiology. And, while nutrition does impact chronobiology, it's important to note that these cycles will typically continue even in instances of complete starvation or a lack of nutrients. In these situations, our organs will completely shut down due to these conditions before the cycles completely shut down. Nutrition simply acts to amplify or better regulate these cycles. This connection between nutrition and chronobiology is referred to as chrononutrition.

Eating affects our chrononutrition in two ways: the actual nutrients that we consume, and when (the time of day) we consume those nutrients.

Nutrients and Chronobiology

For the most part, macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates) and overall calorie intake have been studied in relation to chronobiology instead of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). In other words, we understand more about what we eat in general and how that affects our body's cycles versus what we specifically eat.

High-fat diets have the biggest impact on changing our chronobiology cycles. One way that these cycles are changed is by making the cycles less similar from day to day. These cycles need to be very similar from one day to the next in order to be the most beneficial for us and in order for the cycles within our body to work together efficiently. But in high-fat diets, these cycles stop being constant.

Meal Timing and Chronobiology

When we eat at irregular times, it takes a while for the organs in our body to adapt. Our body is designed to eat several times a day, and our organs (such as the stomach) are made to go through a cycle of being full and empty several times each day. If instead we only eat one big meal, it would take a while for our body to learn how to react to this change. While the body will never become completely used to such a change, it can still change its rhythm to better react to changes. In other words, our body will never be as efficient eating only one large meal per day as eating several meals throughout the day, but it can work with one large meal per day. The 'ideal' number of meals per day has not been determined.

A large breakfast is important to reset several of our chronobiology cycles

Upon changing the timing of our meals, our liver is fastest at changing its cycle, doing so in only three days. The timing for change in other organs such as the heart, pancreas, and kidney has not been accurately determined, but it is longer than three days.

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