What if I told you that the secret to optimal health, stress and weight management is your relationship with the sun? You may think that I’ve gone off the deep end and joined some weird crazy cult that stares into the sun for energy or something.
Well, it’s not crazy or airy fairy, it’s called chronobiology. The science of chronobiology, the field of biology that studies natural physiological rhythms, is telling us that our circadian rhythm (24 hour body clock) governs our health and wellness.
In 2017 the Nobel prize in medicine was awarded to three scientists for their discoveries showing “how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.” They also showed that when our body’s daily rhythms fall out of sync with the Earth’s light/dark cycle our health actually suffers.
In an article in the Guardian, one scientist underscored the importance of these findings by saying: “Every living organism on this planet responds to the sun,” he said. “All plant and animal behaviour is determined by the light-dark cycle. The circadian clock is embedded in our mechanisms of working, our metabolism, it’s embedded everywhere, it’s a real core feature for understanding life.”
What does that mean for those of us setting intentions for our health and wellbeing? Well, if you want to shed a few pounds, don’t count calories only, but also shift meal times. Studies have found that the timing of your meals is just as important as what you eat. Not feeling rested even when you sleep in? Turns out going to bed late and sleeping in can actually make you feel more tired regardless of how long you sleep.
What’s most exciting for me about this research getting a lot of recent attention is that it affirms what Ayurveda has been teaching for thousands of years. Some Ayurvedic doctors love to say that chronobiology is Ayurveda 101, even though Ayurveda didn’t have the scientific method to show scientific results in the way we can today.
Daily routine is a core pillar of health and wellbeing according to Ayurveda, along with knowing your unique constitution. Through research and study on chronobiology, modern science is now affirming the importance of daily routine as the key to health and wellness.
Below I dive deeper into the examples of mealtimes and sleep schedule and the profound effects they have on our health.
Weight Management, Chronobiology and Ayurveda
In our culture we tend to have a mechanistic view of the body and it’s ability to process calories. There’s a belief that the body processes calories the same regardless of when you eat those calories.
Chrono-nutrition studies have found that people who skip breakfast and eat their biggest meal in the evening have a harder time losing weight and even gain weight compared to those who eat breakfast and have their smallest meal in the evening (same caloric intake throughout the day).
Our digestion starts to slow down in the evening so the big meal you eat at night isn’t processed effectively by the digestive system leading to weight gain, higher risk of obesity and related illnesses.
On the other hand, our digestive system is ready to get going in the morning, and at it’s strongest in the middle of the day. According to Ayurveda, your biggest meal should be eaten in the middle of the day when it’s warmest and our digestive fire is strongest. Ayurveda also counsels to eat a small breakfast to get the the system moving, but not too big, just enough to get you to lunch. Chrono- nutrition studies are beginning to affirm these recommendations through scientific study.
If you’re having difficulty managing your weight try eating a small breakfast, large lunch and small dinner no later than 7:30 p.m. I can tell you that it’s worked wonders for my body. I’ve lost over 25 lbs through the practice of daily routine, mealtime routine and diet according to my Ayurvedic constitution.
Family and friends who’ve known me for a long time comment that my body has actually changed shape since I began taking on the practices of Ayurveda. Now I know that these practices also follow chronobiology by syncing my circadian rhythm with the 24 hour light and dark cycle of the rotation of the Earth.
And to be clear, I didn’t take on Ayurveda to lose weight. My focus is and always has been optimal health, long lasting energy and longevity. Weight loss happens to be a positive side effect. Feeling lighter gives me more energy, a clearer mind and greater mood regulation. It’s not about fitting into some ideal body image.
In fact, Ayurveda has freed me up around body image by empowering me with the knowledge that my body type is Kapha-Pitta (water/fire). I now acknowledge all the benefits of having a beautiful, shapely and strong body with a lovely soft belly. 🙂
Not All Sleep is Equal
Another big indicator of health according to both chronobiology and Ayurveda is sleep patterns. Studies have shown that getting consistent, restful sleep at night boosts immunity, leads to weight loss, increases energy, improves memory and decreases stress.
Similar to the belief that all calories are processed the same by the body regardless of mealtime, there is a belief that the benefits of sleep are the same regardless of bedtime and wake time. Although sleep is still somewhat mysterious to scientists, they have shown through research that we cycle through patterns of sleep during the night.
These sleep cycles are made up of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM (non rapid eye movement) sleep. Non-REM sleep has three stages during which your body strengthens its immune system and repairs cells and tissues. During REM sleep your brain is more active so this is the time when you may experience dreams and it’s easiest to wake up. It takes about 90 minutes for your body to cycle through REM to non-REM and back to REM, but it can take longer.
According to some sleep researchers non-REM sleep, the more restful and therapeutic part of the sleep cycle, dominates the earlier hours of the night, while the early morning hours are dominated by REM sleep. Some researchers have found that the switch from non-REM to REM sleep happens at certain hours of the night regardless of when you go to sleep. This means that when you stay up late (past 10:30 p.m.) you get less rejuvenating non-REM sleep and your body doesn’t get to repair cells or strengthen immunity.
Bottom line, when you go to sleep is one of the biggest factors that contributes to your health and wellness. Both sleep researchers and Ayurveda practitioners recommend going to bed by 10 p.m, 10:30 at the latest. As an Ayurveda Wellness Coach I recommend to my clients to go to sleep by 9:30 or 10 p.m. and wake up by 5:30 or 6 a.m. I follow this cycle and it works well for my body. I love it when I wake up at 5:30 a.m. naturally and get an early start to my morning routine.
Both the modern science of chronobiology and the ancient science of Ayurveda tell us that getting in sync with our circadian rhythm is the key to optimal health. When we eat and sleep have a direct impact on our wellbeing. That may be why when we’re out on a multi-day paddling adventure like the Grand Canyon we feel so good. When we’re away from artificial light and spend more time outdoors it’s easy for our minds and bodies to adapt our circadian rhythm to the natural light/dark cycle.
If you want to learn more about daily routine and shifting your schedule I recommend these books: