What if the key to wellness wasn’t so much down to what we do, but when we do it? From maintaining a healthy weight to boosting overall vitality, timing can be…
Did you know each of our body’s cells has its own internal ‘clock’, and that by keeping ticking correctly, you can supercharge your energy, stay in great shape, help ward off disease and sleep well every night? It’s all down to living in keeping with our circadian rhythms, says Dr Satchin Panda, author of new book The Circadian Code (£14.99, Vermilion). “Circadian rhythms are real biological processes that every plant, animal, and even humans exhibits over the course of a day,” he explains. “These rhythms are governed by the internal circadian or biological clocks (very different from the ‘ticking biological clock’ you might think about if you’re worried that you’re not having kids by a certain age). Almost each and every one of our cells contains one of these clocks, and each is programmed to turn on or off thousands of genes at different times of the day or night.”
It’s a clever system that keeps our body functioning as it should, but so often it is thrown off track by everyday situations: “Eating and drinking for more than a 12 hour period in one day, staying awake past midnight under bright lights, staying indoors in dimly lit rooms all day or doing shift work can all disrupt our rhythm,” says Satchin.
Scarily, the consequences of this can be pretty dire. “A few days of disrupted circadian rhythm can give us a foggy brain, insomnia, indigestion, bloating, heart burn and stomach pain, plus flare up some autoimmune diseases,” says Satchin. “Several weeks or months of circadian disruption can break our natural balance of brain chemicals and hormones, build up toxic waste, and lower our repair process. These symptoms can lead to a range of diseases from anxiety, depression, ADHD and diabetes, to high blood pressure, cancer and dementia.”
“When these daily rhythms are disturbed for as little as a day or two, our clocks can’t send out the right messages to genes, and our body and mind will not function as well as we need,” he explains. “These genes influence every aspect of our health. For instance, when we are healthy, we can have a good night’s sleep. In the morning, we wake up feeling fresh and energetic and ready to get to work. Our gut function is perfectly normal. We have a healthy hunger and a clear mind. In the afternoon, we have the energy to exercise. At night, we are tired enough to go back to sleep without much effort. Yet when these daily rhythms are disturbed for as little as a day or two, our clocks can’t send out the right messages to these genes, and our body and mind will not function as well as we need.”
If you’re struggling to shift the pounds, it could all be down to this disruption. In his book, Satchin advocates what he calls timerestricted eating (TRE) as the most important factor in setting our rhythms. Scientists thought for a while that all of the information for our body clock came through the blue light sensors in our eyes – that is, daylight and darkness dictated the processes of our body – but recent experiments have shown that the body syncs to other cues too, with food timing being the most powerful. Satchin says, while our brain clocks are most sensitive to light, the clocks in our gut, liver, heart and kidneys respond directly to food. This is why TRE is our most powerful weapon against weight gain. “Disrupted circadian rhythm keeps our metabolism in a state where our body makes and stores fat and breaks down muscle mass. It does not allow our body to fully turn on its detoxification and fat burning mechanism. That is why we gain weight.
TRE brings back the natural rhythm in metabolism. It maintains a healthy gut and microbiome, which aids better digestion and optimum absorption of nutrients from food. Maintaining a daily cycle of eating during the day, and fasting at night and when we sleep, improves our gut-brain communication so that we don’t feel excessively hungry. “TRE aligns our eating with our body’s rhythm for insulin production, so that our blood sugar levels are better controlled. A few hours after our last meal, our body’s circadian rhythm for fat burning and detoxification begins to rise, so that we burn some fat and detoxify unwanted chemicals.”
Time-restricted eating is the most important change you can make. In his book, Satchin advises that, if you usually eat within a 14-hour window, you cut eating down to 12 hours for a week or two. It’s better to eat earlier in the morning and stop earlier in the evening than it is to do it the other way round. Then, decrease the time by an hour a week – the optimum window is between eight and 11 hours. So, if you had your first mouthful at 7am, the ideal time for your last meal is between 3pm and 6pm. The time starts the moment you have anything other than water – your morning tea counts!
The same goes for when you stop eating and drinking for the evening – if you like a cocktail after your dinner, for example, you’d be better to have it before you eat to keep it within your window. After that, only drink water.
Satchin says late-night eating is very detrimental – metabolism in the gut, liver and throughout the body is reignited when you eat late at night, and this will undo any benefits you’ve achieved in the day.
• Pay attention to how much natural light you get during the day. If the only time you see the sky is driving to and from work, chances are you’re not getting enough daylight. Try to walk outdoors even for a few minutes during your break. Better still, have meetings outdoors or next to a large glass window.
• Stop eating, and drinking anything except water, at least two to four hours before going to bed to ensure your body is able to cool down the 1°f it needs to before it can sleep.
• Everyone knows it is hard to fall asleep under bright light – your circadian clock prevents this. The easiest sleep fix is to maintain a dark sleeping environment.
• Anyone who does a lot of physical activity during the day knows it is relatively easy to fall asleep at night. The simplest and most universal exercise is walking.
• Irrespective of whether it is day or night, whenever you are awake, make sure that you are sitting down only when absolutely necessary. Move your body as much as you can. We expend very little energy when we are sitting, which has an adverse influence on our metabolism, bone strength and vascular health.
• Outdoor exercise in the early morning is ideal. You get daylight exposure to sync up your brain clock, increase alertness and reduce depression. On colder days, you activate brown fat and increase fat-burning potential, and you will naturally raise your cortisol to a healthy level in the morning, which will lower inflammation.
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