You got stuck at the office under the awful fluorescent lights until past your bedtime. When you finally get home you end up eating right before bed and sleep through your morning bike ride to the farmer's market. Waking up in the morning requires a little extra coffee, and you aren't feeling like walking the dog, so you miss out on the sunshine until after lunch. By now you're so out of sync with your normal circadian rhythm, you might as well be in another time zone.
The circadian rhythm is how our bodies align with the daylight, especially influencing our sleep/wake cycle. We’ve adapted to be creatures of a certain type of routine. When we are chronically out of sync with this natural cycle, we throw things into mis-alignment and our disease risk increases.
Circadian entrainment has a wide variety of wellness implications. When we’re out of alignment, it could be affecting us in ways we wouldn’t expect. This is kind of the anti-biohack. The intention is to get out of the way of our own nature to understand how our environment affects us. Alignment means accepting our biology and enjoying the benefits that come from embracing it. This can be accomplished if we're mindful of a handful of important variables.
How Do We Influence Circadian Alignment?
Meal Size and Content
We’re meant to eat a lot in the morning to break the fast from the night before. According to articles I’ve read recently, our carbohydrate intake is also meant to be highest in the morning and decrease throughout the day. Lunch should be somewhat smaller than breakfast. Dinner should be smallest, and eaten before dark. The studies about carb intake had me sort of flipping out because I followed the Bulletproof Diet doctrine of eating carbs only at night to “avoid spiking blood sugar” and causing swings all day. I think you can mostly avoid this when you’re keeping to a slow-carb, low glycemic diet anyway. Also, when we get synced up with nature we’ll be able to find more systemic balance, including blood sugar.
The space between dinner and breakfast should be as long as we can realistically manage, so that we have daily fasts in which our rest and healing processes can kick into full gear. We’re often in an over-fed state throughout the day, which overwhelms our digestive tract and limits our body’s healing processes. What is the point of eating all of those nutrient-dense foods if you don’t give your body the chance to utilize the resources it’s taking in?
To most effectively take advantage of nightly fasts, we should eat dinner early and breakfast nearly first thing in the morning. Skipping breakfast is trendy, but seems to negatively impact circadian alignment. Our insulin sensitivity is best in the morning, and it decreases throughout the day, so we’re primed for carbohydrates in the AM. Our metabolism is naturally very slow at night and we are unprepared to efficiently use sugars. When we eat a lot right before bed we end up storing too much of it as fat and we have lower quality sleep.
Based on studies showing health benefits from maintaining a time-restricted eating schedule, weight loss and disease risk are correlated with what might be classified as intermittent fasting. A limited window for eating might be 8-12 hours. This gives the body a break from digesting and allows for healing processes and aberrant cell clearance.
The strongest example of environmental forces is sunshine. You could say we’re solar powered, but this goes beyond making vitamin D from sunlight. We need to have lots of sunshine during the daylight hours. As my inspiration for this post, Bill Lagakos, calls it, “circadian entrainment” will be strongly influenced by bright sunlight from dawn to dusk.
On the other hand, we should consider avoiding light at the right times. Our communities have been built to blast us with artificial light. Our digital devices, held close to our faces, will do the same, even while the room is dark. When the sun goes down we’re meant to be in near darkness. Obviously this will be difficult for almost all of us, but the benefits of decreasing blue-light exposure are better sleep and better circadian alignment. Specifically, blue light decreases our melatonin production, which is the hormone we associate with sleep. You all know the importance of sleep, right? We must prioritize high-quality sleep, not just high duration sleep. Use warm lights and candlelight at night, and turn on the night-shift mode on your iPhone or Flux on your laptop.
Here are some of the reasons to get back in sync:
Later meal timing increases body fat: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2017/09/06/ajcn.117.161588
What time we eat affects our biological clock. Science: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317735.php
Studies show that time-restricted eating lowers disease risk. This study shows impacts on breast cancer risk from nighttime fasting: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4417458/
Bill Lagakos posts excellent articles on nutrition science that have inspired me to write on this topic. I’ve also changed my routines to align better with my own nature. I’ve seen the benefits in my blood sugar and energy levels. The long-term effects are surely even more significant: http://caloriesproper.com/carb-early-but-not-often/
“The importance of caloric distribution across the day on weight loss therapy was supported by a recent 12-week experimental study showing that subjects assigned to high caloric intake during breakfast lost significantly more weight than those assigned to high caloric intake during the dinner:” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24467926
This week, just prior to posting this, my dad sent me a link to this well-timed news about the Nobel Prize in medicine being given for circadian clock research! Cool! http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/02/health/nobel-medicine-prize-circadian-rhythm/index.html
Illustration by the super-talented Mary Keane. At half my age, she already has a whole lot of this wellness stuff figured out! Huge thanks and shout-out to her for the collaboration.
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