The next time you reach into the fridge for a midnight snack – take heed: New research by Weizmann Institute scientists has shown that the time at which you eat your meals might have a profound effect on your liver triglyceride levels. Their research was conducted on mice, but if found to be true for humans as well, it may have clinical implications in the way patients could be treated for fatty liver and other metabolic diseases, which are characterized by abnormally elevated levels of lipids in blood and liver cells.
Our bodies are naturally cued to carry out various biological processes such as eating and sleeping at certain times of the day, and disruptions to this timing system, for example, eating at inappropriate times, may disturb the body’s natural rhythm and lead to disease. It’s no coincidence that shift-workers or those who travel frequently have been found to have a higher incidence as fatty liver and obesity, among other diseases.
Dr. Gad Asher of the Weizmann Institute’s Biological Chemistry Department researches the “biological clocks” known as circadian rhythms that are responsible for the fluctuating behavior of various biological processes. He and his colleagues have discovered that the levels of triglycerides – those nasty lipids that can build up in the liver and contribute to various heart problems – are regulated by these biological clocks, with their levels rising and falling according to a specific timetable. No big shocker there, but their next finding was quite surprising: When they restricted the mice’s meals to nighttime hours only, they saw a shift not only in the time the triglycerides had accumulated in the liver, but they observed a dramatic 50% decrease in overall levels. (And before you go ahead and open that fridge – remember: Mice are nocturnal animals so whatever works for them would be the opposite in us, humans.)
No drugs currently available for treating hyperlipidemia and hypertriglyceridemia – common diseases characterized by abnormally elevated levels of lipids in the blood and liver cells – have been shown to change lipid accumulation as efficiently and drastically as simply adjusting meal time. In other words, this research could lead to an alternative therapeutic intervention for such diseases: simply adjusting mealtimes. As an added benefit, one would not have to suffer any of the side effects usually associated with the drugs.
Not only that, but the scientists say it could have some farther-reaching implications. Just think about blood tests: These are usually only carried out in the morning hours, often after a fast. It is possible that the same test, carried out in the late afternoon, would yield different results? And the same holds true for animal researchers: Their data could depend on the timing of samples or feeding schedules.