When you first think about rhythm, you may think about when you took lessons on a musical instrument or maybe even a crazy uncle busting a move at a family wedding. Truth is, you probably don’t think about rhythm much throughout the day. Yet, it tends to be one of the most important parts of our biological function.
No, not in the bongo-jamming kind of way, but in the optimal-health kind of way.
Though circadian rhythm—the natural cycle our bodies go through every 24 hours—is something we have known about a long time, it’s emerging as one of the most important things we should consider when it comes to living well. Most of us associate this cycle with sleep (more on that in a moment), but there’s a lot more to it than that.
For me, it really comes down to thinking about our natural cycles and how the things we do influence them—and that we should do things because of them.
This vital area of health—called chronobiology—focuses not just on the what we do, but also the when we do it.
That is, how do we best maximize our health by thinking about the timing of our actions?
When we look at a subcategory of chronobiology—called chrono-nutrition—that means we think not just about the kinds of nutrients we take and the quantity of them, but also when we consume them. That’s because it’s becoming clearer and clearer that our bodies need different things at different times.
For food, one of the main takeaways is that our bodies prefer us to have more food at the start of the day than toward the end (the whole “breakfast like a king, dinner like a pauper” idea). This gives our bodies a chance to digest and use those nutrients throughout the day, rather than letting a big meal sit with us while we’re trying to sleep. It’s interesting to note that this is how traditional farmer families eat—big breakfasts to fuel them through a hard-labor day.
I also think this is a fascinating area to explore when it comes to vitamins. It used to be that you’d just take a vitamin once or twice a day without any consideration for time. The new frontier for nutrition is matching timing with nutrient delivery.
This area of science will continue to evolve over time, but it’s one that I think that will change the way we think about health—and what it means to really be in tune to our natural cycles.
After all—whether you play a wicked guitar or feel like you dance stiffer than a 2-by-4—the truth is, we’ve all got rhythm.
Staying in Your Cycle
Certainly, when we talk about circadian rhythm, we tend to focus on the sleep aspect—when we rise, when we snooze, and how we feel when we don’t quite get enough good Zzzzzz-time.
The reason why it’s so vital to our health is that our circadian rhythm isn’t just cranky if you have to hit a 4 a.m. alarm every once in a while; it’s because the rhythm has a cascading effect on so many other aspects of our health—our hormones, digestion, blood pressure, hunger, and more. So when there are chronic roadblocks to smooth cycles, it can lead to chronic conditions, like obesity, sleep disorders, and mental-health conditions.
When your rhythm gets out of sync, so many other things can as well.
Many things can disrupt our circadian rhythm, like shift work, travel, lighting, alcohol, and some conditions. Each trigger may have a different kind of solution, and some may be unavoidable (like changing irregular shift work), but for those people who do have different sleep schedule or travel extensively, I do recommend melatonin, a supplement that signals to your body that it’s time to sleep.
On the Road
One of the biggest disruptors to our circadian rhythm is travel. Makes sense. One minute, you could be in one time zone ready for bed, and in a few hours, you could be in a place where it feels like dinner time.
Logically, you know that there’s a shift, but your body?
Well, it wants to throw a bunch of angry emojis your way because it knows that there’s something not quite right about the situation when it thinks it should be in bed, but, wait why the heck are you ordering up two carnitas tacos?
I used to travel a lot—across many time zones from the United States to Asia and back. Though I don’t travel nearly as much as I used to (it impacts me more as I get older), I am in tune to what happens to my body during these disruptions. In order to function well (and not feel like I was on the wrong end of a sledgehammer), I use some strategies to adjust. When things do feel off, I can experience symptoms with my digestive system and my body temperature. Here’s what I do to keep my cycles as smooth as possible:
- If I know I’m headed to Asia, I start adjusting a week earlier, trying to move my sleeping and eating habits to the new time zone a few days ahead of time.
- I try to stay awake during the flight, so I can get on the new sleep schedule in the new time zone (and thus not allowing my cycle to be disrupted even more by short spurts of sleep).
- I do take melatonin when I prepare for sleep in my new time zone. I use it especially when I travel across time zones, and it’s magical for resetting my clock and getting me back on schedule during times when everything can seem off.
Time to Eat
Here’s a challenge: If you typically eat your biggest meal of the day in the evening, take one week and experiment with the reverse: Eat your largest meal early, a medium-sized one midday day, and your smallest one for dinner. What did you notice about your energy, your sleep, your hunger? Let me know at DrRobSinnott@AtthePeakofHealth.com.