Dark matters: effects of light at night on metabolism

Proc Nutr Soc. 2018 Aug;77(3):223-229. doi: 10.1017/S0029665118000198. Epub 2018 May 11.


Life on earth has evolved during the past several billion years under relatively bright days and dark night conditions. The wide-spread adoption of electric lights during the past century exposed animals, both human and non-human, to significant light at night for the first time in their evolutionary history. Endogenous circadian clocks depend on light to entrain to the external daily environment and seasonal rhythms depend on clear nightly melatonin signals to assess time of year. Thus, light at night can derange temporal adaptations. Indeed, disruption of naturally evolved light-dark cycles results in several physiological and behavioural changes with potentially serious implications for physiology, behaviour and mood. In this review, data from night-shift workers on their elevated risk for metabolic disorders, as well as data from animal studies will be discussed. Night-shift workers are predisposed to obesity and dysregulated metabolism that may result from disrupted circadian rhythms. Although studies in human subjects are correlative, animal studies have revealed several mechanisms through which light at night may exert its effects on metabolism by disrupting circadian rhythms that are associated with inflammation, both in the brain and in the periphery. Disruption of the typical timing of food intake is a key effect of light at night and subsequent metabolic dysregulation. Strategies to avoid the effects of light at night on body mass dysregulation should be pursued.

Keywords: BMAL1 brain and muscle Arnt-like protein-1; CLOCK Circadian Locomotor Output Cycles Kaput; SCN suprachiasmatic nuclei; ipRGC intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells; Circadian disruption; Circadian rhythms; Food intake; Light at night; Metabolism; Shift work.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Circadian Clocks*
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Eating*
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / etiology
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Light*
  • Lighting*
  • Metabolic Diseases / etiology*
  • Metabolic Diseases / metabolism
  • Metabolic Diseases / prevention & control
  • Metabolism / physiology
  • Obesity / etiology
  • Obesity / metabolism
  • Work Schedule Tolerance