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Right now, with an increase in screen time and likely a lack of regular routine, you might find that you're not sleeping as well as you'd like. You could be tossing and turning when you hit the hay, stirring intermittently throughout the night or waking up earlier than is acceptable. You could also be irritable and dealing with unwanted food cravings.
So, why is this happening? Well, our body clocks are controlled by circadian rhythms, which are affected by light and dark. These circadian rhythms are the reason we feel awake in the mornings and sleepy at night (or at least, the reason we should feel that way). In fact, researchers believe that we have different "clocks" governing biological processes within our liver, gut, and even the heart that are governed by one overarching master clock called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (or SCN for short). Now, circadian rhythms aren't anything new but at the Global Wellness Summit, it was predicted that this year the wellness world would be focusing on circadian rhythm health. Why? For starters, the digital age—with its blue HEV light emitted from our phones, excess Zoom meetings, light pollution at night, and Netflix bingeing until the early hours—has wreaked havoc on our natural circadian rhythms.
We all know how important sleep is for our body to repair itself and so, we called on four experts to zero in on one area of a burgeoning trend called the Circadian Diet. They reveal how we can eat our way to smooth-running circadian rhythms, which in turns results in a better night's sleep, a happier mood, and even clearer skin.
The Circadian Diet: What Is It?
"To put it simply, the circadian diet or the ‘body clock diet’ is a time-restricted way of eating working in sync with your body’s internal body clock," explains Jessica Shand, Naturopathic Nutrition Coach and Founder of eatnourishandglow.com. "For example, it would mean eating during daylight hours, within a window of 12 hours or less, and then not eating at all and fasting the rest of the day. Typically, it means eating your larger meals at the start of the day and making your last meal of the day smaller and lighter."
The circadian diet or the ‘body clock diet’ is a time-restricted way of eating working in sync with your body’s internal body clock.
The Benefits of the Circadian Diet
Jon Denoris, Exercise Scientist and Founder of Club 51, has been recommending this type of fasted diet to his clients for over five years. "Benefits include improved health, weight loss, better gut function, and of course better sleep," he tells Byrdie. "Other benefits reportedly include improved alertness and reduced hunger."
Nutritionist Kim Pearson adds that "there are many benefits of fasting including improved cell repair, reduction of oxidative stress and inflammation (leading to anti-aging benefits), and protection from serious diseases."
Another benefit of fasting is that it could help improve our digestion. Jo Webber, ayurvedic practitioner and Head of Herbal Education at Pukka Herbs, explains that "the circadian diet also supports our internal gut housekeeper! The Migrating Motor Complex (MMC) is activated every 90 minutes and initiates a cleaning wave of our digestive tract—but only if no food is present. We need to leave around 4 to 5 hours between meals for it to work properly, and around a 12-hour period at night."
"Every 90 minutes when you're not eating, there's a gurgling sound which is the MMC in action," explains Webber. "Research is on-going, but it is suggested that the MMC exists to clean the digestive tract of residual food, secretions, and cellular waste. It is also thought to help in preventing a build-up of bacterial populations in the small intestine. In this way, the MMC is like our own personal housekeeper cleaning up bacteria and residue from your last meal and thus, needs to be looked after."
The Circadian Diet 'Rules'
If you're interested in following the diet, then Pearson notes that "the principles are laid out in detail in The Circadian Code, written by Satchin Panda, PhD, a leading expert in the field of circadian rhythm research."
The circadian diet is essentially a form of intermittent fasting. "Imagine your first meal of the day—breakfast, or even a coffee—this opens your 'eating window'," says Denoris. "The earlier you finish eating each day the better—research shows the insulin response is better in the first half of the day and worse in the second half. If your first meal is taken at 10 a.m., you should finish eating by 8 pm for a 10-hour window, working towards an eventual 6 p.m. finish for an 8-hour window. Finishing eating earlier helps with melatonin production and therefore, sleep."
The aim is to have a full breakfast—according to Satchin Panda this should include fiber, lean protein, and healthy fats. On the flipside, Denoris notes that dinner signals the end of your eating—this allows the body to move into the repair and rejuvenation mode. Protein and veggies are advised here.
Pearson agrees and always recommends "trying to eat at least four hours before bed and avoiding starchy carbs in your evening meal, which could cause sleep-disrupting sugar crashes."
When it comes to the specifics of the foods you choose, Shand suggests eating a variety of colorful vegetables at each meal for their "phytochemical and antioxidant benefits".
"In terms of protein, this could include free-range poultry, eggs, natural or greek yogurt, fish such as wild salmon," Shand says. "For vegetarians, a good protein source could include a combination of things to achieve the optimum amount of protein—for example, quinoa, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and beans."
As for drinks, Shand recommends cutting out stimulants as much as possible, including caffeine and alcohol, as these can interfere with your body clock. "Staying consistently hydrated throughout the day by drinking filtered water and aiming to drink the recommended amount of approximtely eight glasses each day will help too," she says.
Beyond Diet: Tune Up Your Circadian Rhythm
Research into circadian rhythms is ongoing and it goes beyond just diet. Here are some quick and easy ways to give your circadian rhythms a quick tune-up:
- Use Sunlight to Your Advantage. "First thing in the morning, try to get some exposure to natural daylight, which contains blue light—this should coincide with cortisol being raised and increasing alertness," says Denoris. "We need blue light exposure in the morning to help with optimal circadian rhythm and the corresponding fall in hormones later in the day that triggers the cascade into sleep."
- Find Your Sleep Sweet Spot. "Set the same time to wake up and go to bed, even on weekends as much as possible," advises Denoris. Experts believe that sleep cycles are 90 minutes but Denoris notes that they can actually range from 90 to 120 minutes—the theory is that 90 minutes is the time it takes to go through a complete sleep cycle, so interrupting this can disrupt your sleep. "If you wake up at 7 a.m., your bedtime should be 10 p.m. or 11:30 p.m. (so, five or six 90-minute cycles)," says Denoris. "As an individual, you will need to find your own ‘sweet spot’ by experimenting with the number and length of sleep cycles. In this way, sometimes we find that actually reducing sleep improves quality."
- Support Your Digestion. "Chew your food well as digestion begins in the mouth," says Webber. "Avoid drinking too much with a meal to prevent diluting your digestive enzymes. At the end of your meal, try and take a few minutes to relax, as this helps digestion. Then wait until you've fully digested your previous meal before you eat again—this will be around four hours for most people."