Nearly one-third of the American population is affected by metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that include high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and obesity, which increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Adopting a healthy diet and increasing physical exercise can improve this condition, but these lifestyle changes can be difficult to implement and even tougher to maintain. Many times these lifestyle interventions, even when combined with supplements and pharmaceuticals, are not enough to fully control the disease.
In a recent small pilot study in Cell Metabolism, researchers found that a 10-hour time-restricted eating intervention in patients with metabolic syndrome resulted in reduced abdominal fat, weight loss, lower blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and insulin levels. This is another addition to the long list of studies that have demonstrated that the timing of when we eat affects our metabolism.
From a conventional medicine viewpoint, this exciting new treatment option may add a new tool for treating patients with metabolic syndrome. From a functional medicine viewpoint, this study adds more evidence to an already established practice used to make metabolism more efficient and optimize our capacity for self-healing.
Time-restricted eating is a method of eating where all calories are consumed within a consistent 10-hour window. In an effort to support their own circadian rhythms, participants were allowed to choose their own time-restricted eating interval within the confines of a continuous 10-hour span where eating was allowed and a 14-hour window of intermittent fasting where they were not allowed to eat. Circadian rhythm is the 24-hour bio-rhythm primarily involved in our daily sleep/wake cycle. Past studies have found that irregular eating patterns and meals close to bedtime could disrupt this rhythm and increase the risk for metabolic syndrome and other chronic diseases associated with it.
The small study included patients with metabolic syndrome. Although calories were not recommended to be reduced, some participants did report eating less, probably due to the shorter eating window.
Focusing all food consumption within a 10-hour window allows the metabolism to have a consistent14-hour period to optimize the restoration of body systems without digestion siphoning away valuable metabolic resources or high insulin levels interfering with cellular recycling. This is particularly important during sleep and the several hours leading up to it. While participants were allowed to choose their own 10-hour time intervals for eating, certain patterns became evident in the course of the study. The eating intervals moved further and further away from sleep. To restrict food intake within their 10-hour window, most participants had breakfast later by two–four hours and dinner earlier by one–four hours each day in order to not skip any meals.
The study participants experienced a three to four percent reduction in body weight, body mass index, abdominal fat, and waist circumference. Risk factors for heart disease were diminished six percent in blood pressure and seven percent in total cholesterol. Primary drivers for diabetes such as blood sugar and insulin were reduced five percent and twenty-one percent respectively. There were no adverse effects noted.
The gains seen by participants of this study were driven by autophagy, which means “self-eating.” Autophagy is how cells recycle their contents and, ultimately, themselves. This process is central to how the human body repairs itself and it primarily occurs while we are sleeping. Intermittent fasting, particularly around the hours of sleep, will enhance this process. The fewer resources spent on metabolically expensive functions such as digestion and the lower the insulin level, the more efficient this cellular recycling becomes and the better the body is able to heal itself of various imbalances.
Insulin reduces autophagy. The more insulin resistant a person becomes, the less their body is able to activate its own inherent healing systems. This also pertains to your average insulin-sensitive person as well because insulin rises after meals in everybody. A late, large dinner or recurrent bouts of late-night snacking can keep insulin levels elevated for several hours after bedtime. By timing our food intake, we can control the efficiency of our metabolism while we sleep.
Through the course of the study, it was also observed that patients placed themselves on more regular eating intervals which allowed the body to anticipate when digestion would be needed so it could prepare to optimize metabolic function. Coupling this with 14 hours of intermittent fasting around sleep brings us one step closer to understanding how to optimize our own healing and regeneration.
Armen Nikogosian, MD, practices functional and integrative medicine at Southwest Functional Medicine in Henderson, Nev. He is board-certified in internal medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs. His practice focuses on the treatment of complex medical conditions with a special emphasis on autism spectrum disorder in children as well as chronic gut issues and autoimmune conditions in adults.