If you’re responsible for employee learning in your organization, one of the last concerns that would normally cross your mind would be something like this: “Hmm, I wonder what Jack, Joe and Jill are doing around midnight. Are they in the kitchen having a late snack?”

And yet, new research suggests, you wouldn’t be wasting your time to wonder about the nocturnal grazing habits of your herd.

That’s because eating at the wrong time of day — like in the middle of the night — disrupts memory and the ability to learn, according to this neurological research, from a team at the UCLA School of Medicine led by neuroscientist Christopher Colwell. This set of studies was done on laboratory mice, but the researchers suggest that the results have applicability to human beings, too.

The circadian rhythms of mice drive them to activity at night and sleep during the day. So to test the possible effects of eating late at night on human beings, whose circadian clocks follow the opposite pattern, the researchers fed the mice during the day.

They found that the off-schedule eating disrupted a number of the mice’s bodily functions, notably that of the hippocampus, a brain region that, in mice and men, is important for learning and memory.

And there was a further negative effect: on “synaptic plasticity,” or the ability of the brain’s synapses to strengthen or weaken in response to increased or decreased activity. This plasticity, neuroscientists say, is also an important foundation for learning and memory.

What to do
So it’s possible that, if some of your people are inveterate late-night fridge raiders, they may be impairing their ability to retain the learning that you try so hard to give them.

But what are you to do about it? Put an ankle monitor on them so you know whether they’re in bed at night or in the kitchen?

Of course not. No employer can hope to control employees’ personal habits with this degree of precision. What your organization can do, however, is recognize and stress the connection between wellness and employee learning.

Specifically, you might want to review the healthy eating component of your wellness program and make sure it takes account of these new research findings on the timing of meals. Your people deserve to know that eating late at night not only makes them fat, it may make them stupid!

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