Many people in the Western world skip breakfast, and it is easy to see why. Mornings are often the most hectic part of the day, with just an hour or two to get from our beds to our schools or workplaces. Commutes are getting longer and offices are opening earlier than ever before. As a result, a lot of self-care can fall to the wayside. Breakfast is one such behavior that is often skipped in favor of getting out of the house on time. Skipping breakfast has become a common way of coping with busy mornings. However, this small decision may have very concerning long-term health effects.
Meal Times and the Circadian Rhythm
Our circadian rhythms are set internally, but they are also influenced by a variety of external cues. When meal times are regular, they can be an important indication of the time of day. Our bodies then know when to secrete insulin and other hormones related to digestion and metabolism. Different genes are expressed rhythmically in response to these external cues, keeping our internal clocks in sync with the demands of the external world.
However, the effect of meal times can extend far beyond our gastrointestinal tract. Many of the genes related to internal clocks are partially or completely controlled by eating. These genes can help to stabilize and align other systems other systems of the body, or alternatively, to throw them into disarray. This may be part of the reason that shift work, which requires waking, sleeping and eating at odd hours, has been found to contribute to a higher risk of a variety of diseases. While this is partially due to disruptions in the sleep-wake cycle, irregular meal times also appear to have a measurable impact on the circadian rhythm and the risk for diseases.
The Risks of Skipping Your Morning Meal
People who run out the door every morning with a cup of coffee and an empty stomach are putting themselves at increased health risk in a variety of ways. For example, the simple act of skipping one’s morning meal has been linked to obesity. It is linked to a higher BMI and a higher waist circumference, both of which increase the risk of diabetes and metabolic disease.
Putting off one’s morning meal can also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. A recent study found that skipping breakfast can escalate the risk of atherosclerosis, which is the single greatest contributor to heart attack, stroke and other life-threatening cardiovascular diseases. This connection existed even when other lifestyle factors were accounted for. Ultimately, eating breakfast appears to have a huge impact on a person’s risk of developing a variety of diseases. Could the circadian rhythm be the connecting factor?
Skipping Breakfast: Bad for Internal Clocks?
Missing meals appears to have a poor effect on long-term health as well as the internal clocks. Researchers looked at the habits of volunteers both with and without a metabolic disease. People who skipped morning meals had an increased blood glucose response to food when they finally did eat, creating a cycle of alternating high and low blood sugar that are both destructive. In the long run, these people also had a higher HbA1c, a blood test that gives an approximate measurement of blood sugar levels over the past three months.
How can the timing of breakfast affect metabolism so predictably? This appears to be tied to the effects of meal timing on circadian gene expression. In the healthy people studied, skipping breakfast affected a smaller range of genetic activity. In people with diabetes, far more genes were turned on or off in response to skipping one’s morning meal. This shows one way that nature and behavior can interact to put some people at higher risk of permanent effects from different lifestyle choices.
Maintaining a Stable Circadian Rhythm Naturally
This new evidence underscores the importance of maintaining a stable circadian rhythm. When our internal clocks begin to tick out of sync, there can be grave physical results. How can people keep their circadian rhythm on track? Experts recommend a few simple behaviors that can make a huge difference in our health:
- Go to sleep and wake at roughly the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Eat at the same times every day and don’t skip meals.
- Expose your skin to natural sunlight throughout the day.
- Turn off lights, including screens that produce light, in the hour before going to sleep.
This research adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests that the simple act of eating—or not eating—can have a huge effect on one’s circadian rhythm. In turn, the circadian rhythm can affect almost every aspect of a person’s health and their risk for a disease. If you are skipping breakfast, it may be well worth it to make time. Although modern life leaves little time for self-care, these small decisions can have an immense impact on our long-term health.