Using Your Body’s Internal Clock
Timing is everything when it comes to healthy digestion, restful sleep, and good fitness. Our “clock genes” control more than we realize, and small changes can make the difference between battling our bodies and effortlessly managing them.
Although circadian rhythm sounds like a complex topic, the good news is, there’s not a lot of guesswork: there is an optimal schedule for health. If you could only do three things to dramatically change the way your body behave, they should be:
- Get to sleep at a set time every night, ideally by ten thirty p.m. When you do this, you start to feel the effects of greater focus during the day, often within the first few days. You have a better handle on daily stress. You will also start to lose weight.
- Eat your largest meal of the day at noon. People who eat a hearty lunch have a much easier time maintaining their weight, and many of the digestive issues they have including acid reflux, upset stomach, and constipation go away when they eat at the right time. Most people are used to enjoying their largest meal at night, but this wreaks havoc with the digestive tract. The evening meal should be about half of what you are used to eating. Don’t worry about being too hungry. The larger noon meal will fuel you through the afternoon and make those late afternoon snacks and cups of coffee unnecessary.
- Exercise first thing in the morning. Most people don’t have to do as much exercise as they think. Spending an hour on the treadmill late in the day isn’t going to do as much for you as twenty to thirty minutes of activity as soon as you wake up. Early morning exercise affects your sleep cycle, your weight, and your blood pressure. It discharges stress also. You can get even more out of your morning exercise if you do at least some of it outside, where your brain can bathe in natural light and strengthen your body’s natural rhythms.
Do just these three things for seven consecutive days and your health will be transformed.
Sleep: The Miracle Drug Available to Everyone
Most of us live indoor lives. In winter, we can have days in which we wake up in darkness, sit in a cubicle far from natural light, and then travel home from work in the dark as well. This takes an emotional and physical toll on our bodies.
Natural light is the primary mechanism by which the body sets its daily circadian rhythm, and when we don’t get enough natural light, the body gets confused about when to be awake and when to sleep.
The fix is easy. Just put on your shoes and take a 10-20 minute walk every morning. If you do this, not only you’ll be the most awake person in the room, you’ll sleep better every night.
This idea of shutting off the TV and hiding the clicker after eight thirty or nine p.m. is a tough one for many people. But sleep isn’t something that just happens to you. It’s something that you and your body have to prepare for.
No matter what, you need to power down about two hours before you expect to fall asleep. Your brain needs time away from the artificial light emitted by electronics in order to start the flow of melatonin. And you need a break from stressful work or media that is playing on your emotions. This is a time to become quiet in body and mind so that sleep can come on gradually.
Mealtimes and Sleep
Mealtimes can have a huge effect on your ability to sleep. Eating a heavy meal later in the evening or snacking at night will interfere with your body’s ability to relax. That may seem counterintuitive, because eating a big meal can make you feel groggy. In reality, your body can’t digest food at night. The digestive process slows to a crawl after dark, so any food you take in will sit in your intestines and ferment. This causes gas, stomach pains, and heartburn, which leaves you tossing and turning. What’s worse, your body may produce mucus or congestion as a result of eating late in the evening.
Eating a light dinner at six p.m. will do wonders for your sleep. Giving up late-night snacks can also boost the quality of your sleep by reducing stomach issues at night.
Diet: You Are When You Eat
Meal Timing Matters
Very few dietary guidelines talk about the timing of meals, and yet obesity researchers are beginning to say that meal timing is the missing link in weight management. Your body’s ability to handle a large infusion of calories—its glucose tolerance—is higher in the morning than it is later in the day. And insulin sensitivity is also cyclical, with insulin sensitivity higher in the morning and lower in the evening.
Eat at the same time every day
Your digestive tract needs a schedule. Your body releases digestive enzymes and hormones in anticipation of mealtimes, and it needs to be able to predict when to do this while you are training your body to be hungry at the right time. If you have to, set an alarm in order to eat at the same time every day for at least a week. This is especially true on the weekends, when people tend to eat later.
Enjoy your biggest meal in the middle of the day
You want to be eating most of your calories in the middle of the day, when your digestion is going full force. The evening meal should be more like a snack, something that takes the edge off of your hunger before night falls.
Prepare a nutrient-rich breakfast
Morning is a time for the first bowel movement as your digestive tract purges yesterday’s waste. And it’s not a time to load up the stomach with flours, sugars, and animal fats. A smoothie with lots of greens and fruits or a little bit of oatmeal usually does the trick.
Set your intention to avoid snacks
Reach for water, even hot water or herbal tea, to take away hunger while you are training your body to expect food at the right time. This is especially useful after dinner. You know that your body is working to suppress your hunger until morning. Let it do its work. You don’t need to eat at night. Remember: you are training your body and, with time, this will be natural for you.
Exercise: The Right Activity at the Right Time
The two most important organs in the body are the heart and the brain. The breath, connects them both.
When you breathe deeply, you connect your heart and your brain instantly. You can do this right now. Take a slow, deep breath. Enjoy it. Take another one if you like. You can probably feel the stress melt away a little bit. Slow, deep breaths are the cornerstone of meditation and yoga, but they are instantly available through even the most modest level of exercise. Conscious exercise puts your daily problems on the back burner while it enlivens the heart and mind. Is there anything more immediately healthy than this?
Exercise As Early As Possible
Muscle cells are more efficient during daylight hours, which means that they are better able to contract and to make this metabolic shift from oxygen to sugar. That’s why intense exercise is more beneficial to your metabolism as a whole when it’s done earlier in the day, and it can help control blood sugar levels.
But there could be an even greater benefit to exercising first thing in the morning. When you exercise before breakfast, you are exercising while the body is still fasting. So when you exercise hard enough to trigger your muscles to switch from burning oxygen to burning sugar, your blood has less available sugar to feed them. As a result, the body is forced to tap into fat stores.
The good news is that you just need 20-25 minutes of exercise before breakfast to get this result. You could be on a treadmill or outside. If you are relatively new to exercise, you can do interval training, in which you are walking as fast as you can for a minute and then walking at a more leisurely pace for two minutes.
More Isn’t Always Better
If you think of exercise only in terms of minutes on the treadmill, you may wonder whether you should do as much as you can in order to get more out of it. But the fact that you have to do an hour of cardio a day in order to lose weight turns out to be a myth.
Research suggests that a shorter, daily burst of intensive exercise may be best, but you probably don’t need as much as you think. 30 minutes is probably enough as long as you augment it with more movement all day long. The trouble with most exercise routines is that they tend to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You decide to get in shape, and then join a gym and work hard until, gradually, you find conflicts in your schedule and skip a few workouts. Eventually, you forget to go at all.
The trick is to do some exercise every day, even if it’s less than what you were doing before. If you haven’t exercised in many years, start by walking briskly every morning, even if it’s just for ten to fifteen minutes. If you take a more leisurely walk after lunch and another after dinner, you can move your body for thirty to forty-five minutes each day. By doing this, you’ve unblocked your system each morning. You’ve breathed deeply and cleared your mind.
Overcoming Common Problems
If morning exercise is the problem . . . Put oatmeal into a Crock-Pot overnight to make time for breakfast. Set your alarm five minutes earlier each day. In just four days, you will have enough time for that morning walk. Lay out your workout clothes and your workday clothes the night before.
If a consistent lunch sounds intimidating . . . Pack a substantial noon meal to take to work, and remember that a bigger lunch will mean less elaborate cooking at dinner. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to eat lunch on time.
If you worry about how to eat less at dinner . . . Look for some easy but healthy dinner options you can rely on. You can even make them ahead, if you know the week will be hectic at work. Create a standard grocery list for yourself that contains lots of vegetables and healthy grains.
If the thought of giving up electronics in the evening makes you anxious . . . Plan evening activities now that don’t include the TV or computer. Think about whether you really get texts or emails after nine p.m. that truly must be answered.
By applying a little creativity and planning to your new schedule before you start, you can avoid falling into your old habits after the first few days. You can keep yourself healthy not only every day, but in every season of the year and in every season of your life.