All manner of subtle detriments can befall those who eat late at night, or even merely after the sun goes down.
These can include heightened blood sugar, decreased insulin sensitivity, inflammation, and shallow sleep—a situation that if occurring in a chronic sense can build the foundation for all manner of disease including Alzheimer’s.
The science behind this seemingly impossible-to-prevent, universal human behavior is not so much breakthrough research, but logical conclusions about human biology and evolution.
Whatever you call the class of researchers that translate medical and nutritional sciences into articles for us laymen, they’re beginning to combine information about exercise, weather exposure, sleep and eating patterns, dietary content, and more to form a comprehensive template on how to build a functional medicine base that will itself serve to stave off many of the chronic diseases that plague our society.
Avoiding eating late at night is certainly part of this panoply of habits, one which is most often researched by sleep scientists.
The windows of the sun
In understanding why the timing of meals is important, it’s useful to explain the relationship between us and the sun.
Distilled to the most basic sentence, sunlight governs our metabolic functions. Here’s how.
Circadian rhythms is a term that describes how our organs align themselves with the day-night cycle of our environments. Many people imagine they have one clock, which we come to know in stark detail when we are jet-lagged. However different cells and organs have their own clocks, which would suggest that different clocks function differently at different times.
The eyes serve as the master clock’s attenuator to the movements of the day and night. Through light-sensing proteins known as melanopsin, they communicate the blue-spectrum (sunlight) intensity to the master clock—a part of the brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, to which all other clocks align.
Unlike our houses, bathed as they are in artificial light, the weald on which walked our early ancestors was dark at night, and as our melanopsin begin to sense the end of the day, their correspondences with the brain are the catalyst for all manner of biological functions.
The smoking gun
In 2009, people examining the entire recorded human genome for the most frequently correlated genetic variants with type-2 diabetes found melatonin receptor 1-b, in the pancreas, as being more present than any other protein in our species.
A melatonin receptor gene simply receives melatonin, also known as the “Sleep Hormone,” and scientists at first couldn’t understand why the gene and the disease were related.
What they found was that as the melanopsin in our eyes alerts our brain that darkness is approaching, the pineal gland began producing more melatonin. The increased melatonin is sent to various organs to prepare them for sleep, activating and deactivating thousands of different genes throughout our body.
When melatonin arrived at the pancreas, the receptor gene inhibited, that is, prevented, blocked, stopped, the secretion of insulin into our bloodstream.
Insulin alerts our body to suck up excess carbohydrates from the bloodstream into the muscle tissues. Excess circulating glucose in the bloodstream for short periods of time is benign, but chronically, such as might happen if someone eats dinner hours after the sun goes down and an hour before bed, can cause major long-term health complications, not least of which is diabetes.
Going with or against the grain
Lifestyle changes to prevent this unfortunate hallmark of the American diet/lifestyle are many and often easy.
For starters, try and make a simple promise to yourself not to eat once the sun goes down. It’s easily identifiable, and is something which we can’t bargain with; when the sun is gone, it’s gone.
Align you and your family’s meal schedules with the progression of the sun across the sky, and with the changing of the seasons. A later dinner in summer is possible while one in winter isn’t. This could also help improve sleep quality, since most literature suggests that sleep quality will improve the longer you wait after eating dinner.
If you do have to eat after dark, eat a low glycemic-load meal consisting of far fewer carbohydrates, and more fiber coming from things like vegetables. A series of meta-analyses of different dietary studies on type-2 diabetics found that several types of dietary fiber improved whole-body insulin response, and lowered post-prandial blood glucose.
Another small study looking only at healthy individuals found that high-fiber dinners improved glucose tolerance, lowered inflammation levels which rise when sugars are circulating freely in the blood, and even increased the satiety of breakfast the following morning.
A cup of white tea, along with containing valuable phytonutrients like catechins, has been shown to work as an appetite suppressant, and if taken with better-tasting herbs and spices, can be a great post-dinner drink to help stave off hunger until bedtime.
Once one understands that eating after dark, biologically, simply doesn’t make the body work right, it becomes far easier a habit to stop. Picturing beige globs of sugar slipping and sliding through your bloodstream like a waterslide while laying in bed trying to sleep is not a nice image.