Study: Midnight Snacks Mess Us Up on a Molecular Level

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Learning from the body's internal "food clock"

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PROBLEM: As with our more or less consistent 24-hour cycles of sleepiness and alertness, the body's "food clock," which extends its control from the digestive tract to the bloodstream, regulates hunger. We unconsciously "set" it by establishing eating patterns -- what time of day we snack, eat meals, and indulge in desserts -- but exactly how we manage to do so is unclear.

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at UCLA took a group of lab mice, and rescheduled feeding time so that it overlapped with their normal sleeping time. Some of the mice were lacking a specific gene that the researchers had reason to believe might be integral to regulating the food clock. 

RESULTS: The normal mice would begin to wake up and indicate that they were hungry at odd hours of the night : Their clocks had successfully been reset. But mice bred without the protein, called PKCy, never registered the adjusted meal time, consistently sleep right through lunch. 

CONCLUSION: When we alter our typical eating habits, the PKCy protein desynchronizes our food clock, throwing us off-kilter. 

IMPLICATIONS: Along with the usual slew of eating-related disorders, like obesity and diabetes, the researchers believe that this molecular understanding for why changing our eating times messes up our food clock might allow them to come up with novel treatments for conditions such as "midnight hunger," and to make better recommendations for people suffering the consequences of jet lag or working the night shift.

It also allows us to explain why and how something like this could happen:

The full study, "PKCy participates in food entrainment by regulating BMAL1," is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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