Updated: Aug 15
Understanding the importance of your circadian rhythm.
Most living things have a circadian rhythm. Basically it's the body's biological clock who's natural pattern is about 24 hours. That means many of the body's processes, like sleep, hormones, mood and appetite, naturally rise and fall over a 24 hour timespan, not just our sleep and wake cycles.
The body’s master clock is a group of cells in the brain located right above the optic nerve that's influenced by to 24 hour cycles of light and dark, along with other factors, to help orchestrate the body's many rhythmic functions. The brain receives signals based on your environment and activates certain hormones, alters your body temperature , and regulates your metabolism to keep you alert or draw you to sleep. This is the same part of the brain that regulates certain hormones (cortisol, insulin, and melatonin) and energy (glucose). The pathways in the brain that control sleep and mood overlap by about 90%.
Over the last 60 years we have seen a significant rise in metabolic disease, especially type 2 diabetes. In the same period, the emergence of electricity and artificial lighting has allowed our behavioural cycles to be independent of external patterns of sunlight. This has led to a corresponding increase in sleep deprivation as well as circadian misalignment.
When eating, sleeping or resting does not occur according to our body's natural circadian pacemaker, cells get confused, chemicals and hormones get released at the wrong time. Jet lag is an example of acute circadian disruption. Your body can’t tell if it’s night or day, so it doesn’t know whether to wind down for sleep or wake up for breakfast. Still, you don’t need to fly around the world to experience out-of-sync body clocks. Many of us are in a state of chronic circadian misalignment.
There’s mounting evidence that when your circadian rhythms are misaligned, it can be a risk factor for chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer. Practicing healthy habits can help your body keep proper time.
How To Maintain a Healthy Circadian Rhythm:
Seek out sun: Exposure to natural light, especially early in the day, helps reinforce the strongest circadian cue.
Follow a consistent sleep schedule: Varying your bedtime or morning wake-up time can hinder your body’s ability to adjust to a stable circadian rhythm.
Get moving: Activity during the day can support your internal clock and help make it easier to fall asleep at night.
Keep naps short and early in the afternoon: Late and long naps can push back your bedtime and throw your sleep schedule off-kilter.
Time food consumption: Finishing your evening meal at least three hours before bedtime gives your body time to digest so it can ease into sleep.
Avoid stimulants: Caffeine can keep you awake and throw off the natural balance between sleep and wakefulness. If you’re having trouble sleeping, you should avoid caffeine after noon. Although drinking alcohol may reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, it tends to delay the onset of REM sleep, which can translate into less restful sleep overall. To reduce the risk of sleep disruptions, you should stop alcohol consumption at least four hours before bedtime.
Embrace the dark: Artificial light exposure at night can interfere with circadian rhythm. Experts advise dimming the lights and putting down electronic devices in the lead-up to bedtime and keeping electronics out of the bedroom. The darker your bedroom, the better. Darkness sends a signal that it’s time to sleep in the same way light sends a signal to wake up.
Qspice makes good food taste good so you can enjoy a healthy plate, but it turns out that when we eat may also be a crucial piece of the diet puzzle. In an age of healthier eating habits, time restrictions on our daily food intake can be just as important as what we eat. A new form of intermittent fasting aims to work with our body's natural 24 hour process by restricting our eating window during the day to align with the circadian rhythm, and when our bodies are optimised for functions such as digestion and fat burning. The results are said to include everything from weight loss to reduced cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure.
Morning light also seems to help people keep the fat off. You need 20 to 30 minutes between 8 a.m. and noon to make a difference, but the earlier you get it, the better it seems to work. Scientists think the sun's rays may shrink fat cells below your skin's surface. Either way, the commitment to morning light exposure soon after waking, sans sunglasses, has made a noticeable difference in my overall frame of mind. When the light tells my brain to shut down melatonin production, that in turn signals the release of more wake-promoting neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and histamine which makes me feel good for the rest of the day!