The Nobel prize was awarded to three physiologists who first discovered the relationship between circadian rhythms and how cells function inside plants, animals and people. Every part of your body, your liver, your digestive track, your brain, your circulatory system are doing different things at night than they do during the day.
How does our schedule affect our health? It is well known that the 15% of American shift workers are more prone to metabolic disorders, depression and heart disease, most Americans function as part-time shift workers by virtue of the schedule we impose on ourselves.
My patients come to my clinic in Santa Cruz, California because they can’t lose weight. They have no energy and can’t quite get to sleep at night once they put the smartphone away and shut off the TV. They think it’s because they have no willpower to adopt the healthy habits they know they need. In reality, it’s because they are ignoring the clock genes that rule their physiology. Chronobiologists know that the digestion is strongest in the first half of the day and weakest after dusk. I tell my patients to eat their largest meal at noon and eat a very light dinner in the early evening. After that, they should eat nothing because the digestive tract needs at least 10 hours of rest overnight to conduct repairs and produce necessary hormones. By eating a lighter and earlier dinner, and by shutting off electronic stimulation after 8:30 at night, patients find that many of their health problems disappear. Finally, they can fall asleep at a reasonable time and wake up refreshed. Finally, they can lose weight. Their blood work improves dramatically. Other ailments including heartburn, headaches, snoring, and minor aches and pains go away as well. When I add 20 minutes of vigorous exercise first thing in the morning, their moods rebound along with their natural focus at work. I didn’t invent these solutions. They are based on Ayurvedic medical practices that date back 5,000 years. Ancient scholars understood that man is part of nature, and like the natural world he functions by the light of the sun.
There is some evidence that their brains benefit as well. In his best-selling book “The End of Alzheimer’s,” Dale Bredesen argues for these same lifestyle changes as a means to stave off or reverse cognitive decline. Getting to sleep on time and giving your digestive tract at least 10 hours of rest every night also reduces inflammation—the other national epidemic—which is a leading trigger for age-related cognitive issues. Good nutrition helps. So does exercise. But the missing piece is setting a healthy daily schedule that supports the body’s powerful circadian rhythm.
Bredesen is telling readers the same things that chronobiologists have been urging for years. And it’s the same thing I tell my patients as well. You can’t fix your health until you fix your daily schedule. Eat earlier in the day and unplug at night and your life will change for the better.