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Resilient Health

Chronobiology and the Rhythms of Nature

  • Do you experience energy crashes in the afternoon?
  • Are you a night owl, getting a boost after 10 pm?
  • Do you suffer from indigestion, but only at night?
  • Do you drag in the morning, struggling to get up and get going?

We all experience shifts in mood, energy level, digestion, and many other physiological processes that correspond with our 24-hour day (AKA circadian rhythm). But instead of fighting these rhythms which can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, mental fog, indigestion, and weight gain, we can learn to harness these rhythms for our benefit and create abundant energy, restful sleep, mental focus, and a happy belly.

Stuck on the Hamster Wheel of Life

Nearly 20 years ago, I was caught in the hamster wheel of life. Hitting the snooze button probably 20 times before I dragged out of bed, I felt like I needed 10-12 hours of sleep and lamented that I did not have the luxury of time for that type of rest. I’d head straight to the coffee pot for energy and kept the caffeine going through the day with more coffee and diet colas, feeling awake but jittery. I’d rush through lunch, grabbing whatever was fast and convenient. 

By mid-afternoon my brain would hit a wall and I’d reach for more caffeine to keep me chugging and sometimes something sugary like a snickers bar for a quick energy boost. At the end of the day, I’d be physically exhausted but mentally so amped up from all the caffeine that I’d drink a couple glasses of wine to calm down. Finally having time to eat, I would enjoy a large and heavy meal that satisfied me in the moment, but ultimately left me feeling bloated and uncomfortable. As I was vegging out in front of the TV, I’d actually start to feel less tired after 10 pm and then would struggle to get to sleep, continuing this unhealthy cycle the next day.

On and on I went, temporarily alleviating my fatigue, my moods, and my symptoms with caffeine, alcohol and pharmaceuticals,  but never really addressing the root of the problem. It wasn’t until I started learning about Ayurvedic Medicine and trusting the rhythms of nature – learning to go with the flow instead of constantly trying to swim upstream – that I found my natural source of energy, rebalanced my sleep-wake cycle, and harnessed my body’s natural rhythms to digest and function with ease.

Chronobiology: Aligning with the Rhythms of Nature

Fast forward to today where I awaken naturally and with vibrant energy without an alarm clock after eight hours of restful sleep. I have ample energy through the day and can focus without feeling the need for a mid-afternoon pick me up. I still love the taste of coffee, but no longer need the caffeine. And I don’t experience uncomfortable bloating or heaviness after eating. I’m also able to fall asleep naturally without the use of alcohol or pharmaceuticals.

I didn’t believe the promises of Ayurveda at first – especially given that at the time I was in my Neurology Fellowship working 60+ hours a week and taking overnight call. But I love to experiment, so I dug in. Starting with re-aligning my time clock to match that of nature, I aimed to get in bed by 10 pm and wake up with the sun around 6 am. Instead of hitting snooze until 6:30 or 7, I used the extra time to meditate (which created a state of restful awareness and focus) and do 5-10 Sun Salutations to get my energy flowing. I weaned down my caffeine use during the day, and used breathwork and energizing aromas (lemon, mint, and rosemary are some of my favorites) to re-energize and focus.

In the evening, I let the natural wave of tiredness take over and got to bed earlier instead of staying glued to the TV. Minimizing screen exposure can reduce the energizing effects of the blue light that is emitted from these devices – I’ve heard that it can be as energizing as caffeine and can disturb the production of melatonin which is our natural sleep hormone. I found that if I caught the wave, I fell asleep easily, but if I pressed on watching a show or doing work I would get a second wind of energy, having missed my window of natural sleepiness. According to Ayurveda, this is due to the natural cycles of energy that occur throughout the day. This is backed up by physiological measurements that show us that many aspects of our biology follow a circadian rhythm.

It makes sense. For example, why would our body bother releasing digestive enzymes while we are asleep and not eating? That would just be a waste of energy. Did you know that our ability to digest is strongest in the middle of the day and is less strong in the evening? And scientists have shown that when we eat matters as much as what and how much we eat.

For example, in a study of overweight and obese women who were given diets with the same calories and macronutrient (protein, fat, carb) content, those who ate their largest meal at breakfast and a very small dinner lost more weight and had a smaller waist circumference at the end of 12 weeks versus those who had breakfast as their smallest meal and dinner as their largest. And interestingly, those who ate the smallest meal at dinner reported less hunger. I’ll dive deeper into this subject of eating timing in a future blog post.

Creating a Daily Routine to Harness the Power of Natural Rhythms

Our bodies have aligned themselves to work with the natural environment. Build your daily routine to take advantage of these natural rhythms. Here are my top suggestions to start an ideal routine:

Morning: Get out of bed by 6 am. Meditate for at least 5 minutes. Get your body moving for at least 5 minutes. Take a light healthy breakfast.

Mid-day: Eat your largest meal around noon. Walk outside for at least 10 minutes.

Evening: Eat a lighter dinner around 6 pm. Do not eat past 8 pm. Begin to wind down, reducing exposure to bright lights and mental stimulation. Get to bed by 10 pm.

 

Selected references:

 

Read more from Dr. Panda in his book, The Circadian Code

https://time.com/3642620/why-you-shouldnt-read-a-tablet-before-bed/

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/oby.20460

 

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