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March 19, 2021

Realigning Ourselves with Nature: Using the Circadian Clock to Maximize our Health & Well-Being.

Last year was the first time in over a decade that I couldn’t fly back home to visit my parents.

Longing for home led to a wave of nostalgia, and I often found myself thinking of my childhood—golden memories of shared spaces with grandparents and the importance of family, relationships, traditions, and rituals.

One of the many things I admired them for was their appreciation for, strict adherence to, and value of time—of each and every passing minute.

Mind you, back then, that was something I wasn’t particularly impressed by—their rigid timetables. They would eat at fixed times day after day—an early breakfast after the morning prayer, some fruit in between as a snack, lunch, a cup of tea after a short afternoon nap, and an early dinner.

Come rain or shine, this routine would be strictly adhered to, irrespective of any disruption in the plan—even if a special guest was joining us for dinner. If you came on time, you could enjoy the pleasure of my grandmothers’ company. If you were held up for some reason, you would be told in an apologetic tone, they had eaten and had now retired.

I found it hopelessly rigid at the time, but in retrospect, they simply honoured the connection with nature and were always in tune with its cycles, hence optimizing their physical and mental well-being.

Disregard for these cycles over a long period of time can create serious imbalances, which can in turn adversely affect our health. I had previously discussed the Ayurvedic clock with its six distinct time periods and how it refers to the three doshas and the five elements to explain our biological shifts during the day.

The focus of this article is the Circadian clock and rhythm, which is our internal clock, reflecting changes in our organs and hormones over a 24-hour cycle. At the crux of it all is the timing of everything, for it is not only what we eat, but when we eat. Similarly, it is not only a question of how much we sleep, but also when we sleep, which is crucial.

Amidst all of the uncertainty around us, the one thing we know for sure is that the sun will rise and set every day, and rise again to repeat the unending cycle. It is through this cycle of light and dark that the trees and flowers around us bear fruit and flowers and the weather and seasons change.

Modern science has been proving that there is a great connection between the light/dark cycle and our human physiology. A Circadian rhythm or cycle describes our 24-hour internal clock, which, influenced primarily by sunlight, affects our physical, mental, and behavioural patterns. It gives us the ideal times for sleeping, eating, exercising, and even when to engage in serious thought.

If we eat at irregular times, indulge in many snacks in between, or sleep erratically at different times and for different amounts, it can lead to several imbalances influencing not only our physical but also our mental well-being.

Though the Ayurvedic and Circadian clocks don’t exactly overlap, they complement each other.

Compared to the six four-hour periods of the Ayurvedic clock, the Circadian clock is divided into four six-hour periods:

6 a.m.-12 p.m.

The stress hormone cortisol is released naturally early in the morning during this time period. At this time, blood pressure also increases, and testosterone is the highest; as a result, there’s a peak in our strength, energy, and alertness. It is the best time to exercise and undertake projects that require focus and energy. I have always found I could get my most dense, challenging reading done early in the morning.

A note of caution here: having coffee before 8 a.m. can compound the effects of naturally released cortisol, conveying a signal to the body that it is under extreme stress, sending it into survival mode. In order to avoid this, stimulants should not be had early in the morning, or, if consumed, then at least only in small doses.

Instead of reaching for that early morning dose of caffeine, try opting for a cup of hot water, either on its own, or with some honey and freshly squeezed lemon.

12 p.m.-6 p.m.

Our lung function is at its best, and our body temperature is highest in the afternoon. One is quick, sharp, and has the best possible hand-eye coordination and fastest reaction time. This perhaps explains why we are always advised to cover long-distance drives during the day. Nighttime driving naturally leads to many more oversights and, hence, accidents. However, this is also the time when the body can get stressed, is tired, and more often than not, might need stress relief. A short rest, mindful breathing exercises, or a brief stroll outside, or even 10 minutes of gentle stretching would do wonders for restoring energy.

6 p.m.-12 a.m.

Most of us are familiar with melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep cycle. Melatonin is naturally released in our bodies between 9-10 p.m., signaling to us that it’s time to prepare for sleep, as well as repair and restore mode.

And this is the crux of the problem we are facing today: according to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends over 90 percent of his or her time indoors. So, during the day, there isn’t enough bright light exposure, and then in the evening, we’re getting too much artificial light exposure. Blue light from electronics suppresses the natural release of melatonin because it artificially signals our body that it is still day.

Both of these have the consequence of causing our natural body rhythms to get out of sync, having serious repercussions on our physical as well as our mental and emotional health. Melatonin supplements may help (a lot of people take them to counter jetlag when travelling or to counter insomnia), but it’s best to have lots of exposure to natural sunlight during the day and to limit the uses of devices at night, at least a couple of hours before going to bed. Having an early dinner, ideally before 8 p.m., also helps the body wind down and prepare for timely rest and sleep.

12 a.m.-6 a.m.

The body naturally repairs, restores, and recharges itself while we are asleep at night. It is a built-in, self-regulating cleansing system with the function of eradicating waste and toxins. The liver neutralises harmful substances like alcohol, medicines, or chemicals found in our food. The function of the liver shifts from producing bile to aid in digestion to removing toxins from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. At this time of night, our brain cells are repaired and recharged as well, with any wasteful build-up from brain cells being removed.

This restoration work helps in the proper formulation of memory and our ability to think clearly the following morning. As a result, we awaken refreshed and recharged, ready to tackle another day.

Try to inculcate the habit of sleeping before midnight, which will give the body the necessary rest it requires to properly detox and recharge for the following day. Resist that urge to stay up late into the wee hours of the morning.

The problem we are facing today as a society is that our natural body rhythms are out of synch because of a complete disregard for the natural clocks. There is a dire need to harness the power of ritual and routine, realising that the sacred practices of our past generations have to be honoured.

We should design our day according to either the Ayurvedic or Circadian clock, or better still, to both clocks. Perhaps to make it seem less daunting, start with small steps like trying to go to bed a little earlier, rising earlier, and then adding small changes progressively: a few minutes of solitude, meditation, and yoga stretches at the beginning or end of the day and having a hearty meal somewhere in the middle.

I look at my children today, who eat when they feel like it, sleep late, and wake up late, and thanks to the COVID-19 lifestyle, have lost any semblance of routine from their online world.

And yet, I am hopeful that somewhere in the recesses of their mind, their mother’s routine is being registered. And just as I came to appreciate the wisdom behind the daily practices of my grandmothers and mother, in time so shall they.

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Read part one: Realigning Ourselves with Nature: How to use Ayurveda to Maximize our Health & Well-Being.

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Reference: 

Kucera, Sarah. The Ayurvedic Self-care Handbook: Holistic Healing Rituals for Every Day and Season. New York: The Experiment, 2009.

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