Circadian rhythm and body clocks

The day, 1st Apr 2020: “How are you passing your time?” asked my worried mother over the phone.

“ I am fine Mummy,” I replied, assuring her that being shut in my flat on the 8th floor all by myself, not being allowed downstairs for even a walk, was not getting to me. She called once, sometimes twice daily during the lockdown days. “What did you do today?” she enquired over one such call. “I cooked, cleaned, read, did yoga, and watered my plants,” I told her.

As I put down the phone one day, I realised that my phone time had not increased, nor was I binge watching Netflix or binging on anything for that matter. As I wondered why, I realised that I had unknowingly established a daily routine. It came fairly naturally to me. Maybe the  Army taught me that, where even patients in a military hospital are woken up, given food, asked to exercise, all at a fixed time. Harsh, some might say, but I quite like it!

This is where having a regular 9-5 job also helps. It force us into routines, even though we may crib about them.

I still remember visiting a shelter home for people with mental disabilities 10 years ago that housed almost 700 inmates. What struck me most was the complete lack of any routine. There was no wake up time, no bed time, no fixed activity. Try doing this for 3-4 days at a stretch; it can make even the sanest of us feel a bit unstable.

I am sure most of us know people who follow routines, who even without the 9-5 job rise at a certain hour, eat at fixed times, go for a walk and sleep at a certain hour. It is easier to see this in the generation who is now over 60, compared to those younger then them.

So, why does a routine matter, you ask? Some of these routine type people can come across as stuck up and boring. Sure take anything too far and it can make you rigid.  But when done right i.e when our daily routine is in sync with nature’s laws, it serves as preventive medicine.  

Circadian rhythm, dincharya and human energy clock.

A routine is a routine, so does that mean that waking up at noon, eating meals at odd but fixed hours, is also a routine? Sure it is, and compared to no routine any routine is better.

But the human body has a rhythm which closely aligns with nature’s rhythm. The more we sync up these two, the more optimally our body will function. Almost all systems that try to study the human body will talk about the body’s rhythm or clock. Allopathy mentions the Circadian rhythm; Ayurveda and naturopathy prescribe dincharya i.e. living according to nature’s clock; Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM) calls it the human body energy clock.

Circadian rhythm

Just like nature has a day-night rhythm, the human body has a rhythm that repeats itself every 24 hours.  This set of functions that happen again and again over every 24 hours are called a circadian rhythm. This rhythm does not just affect our sleep-wake cycles, but also hormone secretion, cardiovascular health, digestion, and body temperature. (Source: National Institute of General Medical Sciences).

Our body’s hormones surge and ebb to this rhythm; even our cells grow faster during certain hours of the day. For e.g., melatonin, the sleep hormone is secreted between 9 pm and 7:30 am each day. Wouldn’t it make sense for us to be sleeping then?

Human energy clock

Part of TCM, this Clock is built upon the concept of the cyclical ebb and flow of energy(Qi) throughout the body. During a 24-hour period Qi moves in two-hour intervals through the organ systems. During sleep, Qi draws inward to restore the body. This phase is completed between 1 and 3 a.m., when the liver cleanses the blood and performs a myriad functions that set the stage for Qi moving outward again. For e.g. eating large meals of the day early delivers nourishment to the small intestine when it is strongest, which aids absorption and assimilation.

Ayurvedic clock

Are you following the Ayurvedic Clock? | Sunshine Ayurveda

The 5 elements of naturopathy combine to reflect the three doshas of Ayurveda, forming the basis of this clock.

Vata: Ether + Air

Pitta: Fire + Water

Kapha: Water + Earth

Both Ayurveda and naturopathy emphasise the need for activities synchronous with the elements, thereby making the body function at its optimal

Incorporating the body clocks into lifestyle

Over the last two years I have tried to incorporate changes in my lifestyle so that I am aligning the body with these natural clocks or rhythms. Sharing my experience about the same:

To wake up with the sun

Dincharya recommends waking up at Brahmamuhrat, i.e 1.5 hours before the sun rises. Almost anybody who follows a meditation practice knows that this is the best time for meditation. I am not there yet, so not elaborating on this. I do manage to wake up with the sun on most days. On days that I try to sleep longer, I get lots of morning dreams that invariably make me feel tired and lethargic. I get out of bed once my eyes open, telling myself that I can always come back to bed if I want to. I never do, unless I am sick. If getting out of bed is something that you find difficult to do , then your nervous system is either not fully recharging (bad sleep) or is overall fatigued.

To drink water and wait to eat breakfast

As simple as it sounds , making sure that I drink 3-4 glasses of water first thing in the morning has helped cure my constipation. It’s a habit now, so I don’t have to think about it anymore. I understood that the body’s natural tendency is to eliminate in the morning, so drinking water and not eating within the first 2-3 hours of waking up helps that process. I have also re-taught myself to go sit on the pot around the same time every morning. You will be surprised how much our large intestines love a routine!

To exercise in the morning

Exercising in the morning sun (upto 2 hours post sunrise) and early morning air (unless you live in a much polluted city) has the best effects on the body, I found. A lot of people like exercising in the evening, but I found that evening exercise mostly tires rather than energises the body. It is better to go for a stroll post an early dinner.

To finish eating by 7 pm

The food routine that suits me the best is eating twice a day. Once around 11 am and the other between 5:30 and 6:30 pm. Even if I can’t follow this every day, I have learnt to finish eating by 7 pm. This has big difference. I notice it most in my night sleep and yoga the next day morning. By the time I sleep, the body my finished digesting everything in the stomach. This helps the liver in its 1 to 3 am detox as per the Chinese energy clock. The feeling of lightness while sleeping and yoga is something that I have come to cherish.

To eat the heaviest meals early in the day

My lunch was always the biggest meal of the day, large dinners always uncomfortable. So this was not really a change I made but just a habit I have stuck with. Especially now that I know that the small intestine does most of its absorption between 1 to 3 pm, I am happy to put in the food before that time.

Making sure that we stay healthy does take a bit of effort, but once the rhythms especially the circadian rhythm aligns with nature, one will experience a surge in energy and lightness (two key markers of good health). There is no looking back then. Another reason why you might want to seriously look at these body clocks is if you are experiencing low energy, mood swings, food cravings, weak immunity, and having trouble losing weight, all signs that the natural body rhythms are disrupted.

Do also read 7 habits of healthy people


2 responses to “Circadian rhythm and body clocks”

  1. […] rise and sunset) which govern our body’s circadian rhythms (can read more about circadian rythmn here). So, larks and owl in the human body do not have a different nervous system. It is their habits […]

  2. […] P.S: More about Dincharya and body clocks here. […]

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