We are hard-wired to sync with our environment, waking at daybreak as the body produces cortisol to make us feel alert, then sleeping once the sun sets as our brains produce melatonin to make us feel sleepy. As an ancient population this served us well, allowing us to carry out our work whilst the sun was up and rest and repair during the hours of darkness.
Partly set by light, but also under genetic influence, it is not just our sleep that is cyclical, it may surprise you to learn that all our organs are also on time switches around this 24 hour cycle. This internal clock known as our circadian rhythm dictates our health and wellbeing around the clock.
Certain genes are more - or less - active at certain points in the day, gut flora naturally fluctuates over the course of 24 hours, whilst human liver cells in a test tube start operating by daily rhythms all on their own. Our cells in different organs even have differing times when they let nutrients in, whilst release of hormones is also rhythmical.
Medical science is on the case to try and harness these rhythms, in a bid to improve our health. A piece of recent research for example focussed on when might be the best time to take medication for lowering blood pressure. It turns out, it might be most effective when taken in the evening, to echo the 10-20% dip in blood pressure which naturally occurs when we sleep. Cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke are more likely in those whose blood pressure no longer naturally dips as it should when asleep.
Fascinating stuff, although perhaps nothing new if you are interested in traditional Chinese medicine. Proponents of this way of looking at health have long observed these natural daily rhythms.
But it’s not that easy…
If we disrupt our delicate body clock timing with modern day life - electricity, the invention of the light bulb, blue light emitting screens, eating or exercising late into the night - you guessed it, disruption and poor heath ensue. We are literally disorientated - our body is awake when by rights it should be asleep, our gut, sleep, mood, metabolism, appetite, gut flora and repair systems and more are thrown out of kilter.
So how can you create strong circadian rhythms in order to help optimise body functions? The two most powerful things you can do are:
Other things you can do are to make sure you get some natural light in the morning. Take a walk outside before your daily routine begins, or if the weather is conducive simply have your first cuppa in the garden.
Exercise is also key, as circadian rhythm is known to be stronger in those who exercise. The best times to exercise are either first thing in the morning or around dusk. Exercising too late in the evening sends the body the message to delay melatonin production and increase cortisol levels - both these mean that your body doesn’t feel sleepy when it should.
This all might sound a bit routine, especially if you like to live life on the more chaotic side, but if you want more energy, better weight control, a sharper brain and numerous other benefits to your long-term health it might be time to give it a try! Timing, as they say, is everything J
Ramon C et al (2013). Blunted Sleep-Time Relative Blood Pressure Decline Increases Cardiovascular Risk Independent of Blood Pressure Level—The “Normotensive Non-dipper” Paradox. Chronobiology International, 30 (1-2); 87-98