Circadian Rhythm Optimization - Why It's Important And How You Can Achieve It
IF Insider No. 46 - Special "Fast Factor Circle" Edition
In our previous issue (IF Insider No. 45) we took a close look at GABA, the human body’s most widely distributed calming neurotransmitter, including whether or not you should consider supplementing. In this Special Edition of the IF Insider, we are presenting the latest Deep Dive, that we do monthly for our members who subscribe to our Fast Factor Circle. We’ll tell you more about the Circle at the end of this edition, including how you can join us!
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Circadian Rhythm Optimization
Research on circadian rhythm’s effects on everything from our sleep to the development of cancer is popping up everywhere. We will discuss a few of these findings, including some basic biology, just to show you the breadth of things that circadian rhythm has an effect on, but our primary aim with this particular Deep Dive is to show you how to optimize your own circadian rhythm to have the greatest positive effect on your health.
Almost all of our body functions, from our sleep-wake cycle, all the way down to functions on the cellular level, are affected by circadian rhythm. So what does circadian rhythm mean exactly?
Circadian rhythm is the term for the pattern of physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow an approximately 24-hour cycle and are affected by exposure to light and darkness. There are other signals the body uses to synchronize circadian rhythms, such as physical activity, food intake, and so on, but light is considered the most important.
The word circadian comes from the Latin circa diem, meaning “about a day” and is automatically reset every 24 hours. Once your circadian rhythm is set though, it’s tough to intentionally reset it, as evidenced by people who are night owls trying to become early risers, and early risers trying to become party animals.
What makes us sensitive to light and dark and regulates the circadian rhythm are biological clocks. These clocks are found in nearly every tissue and organ and they are composed of proteins that interact with our cells. The working parts of the clocks are proteins, which are produced and broken down in a cycle that lasts 24 hours.
With all these different clocks scattered all over the body, it makes sense we would need a timekeeper, a master clock, to keep everything in sync and yes, we do have one.
This master clock is in a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, a small structure that is at the base of the brain near the pituitary gland. Within the hypothalamus is the master clock, a group of about 20,000 nerve cells that form a structure known as the SCN, or suprachiasmatic nucleus. (supra meaning above and chiasmatic refers to the optic chiasm, the area where the right and left optic nerves cross, forming an X from the Greek chiasm, a cross or X-shaped mark.) The SCN receives light input through the eyes, which travels down a nerve tract to the SCN.
Remarkably, it’s not the photoreceptors in the retina that are responsible for vision that are involved, but it’s through special retinal ganglion cells that detect light directly and their nerve connections transmit information about that light to the SCN, primarily by firing of neurons and lesser so by the direct release of neuropeptides into the CSF (spinal fluid) If these special retinal ganglion cells are working, even someone who is blind can keep their circadian rhythm intact.
Circadian rhythm influences hormone release, hunger, and digestion, core body temperature, mood, the body’s fluid balance, memory, and many other biological processes, including the functioning of our immune systems. But when it comes to the influence of circadian rhythms, the thing most of us are apt to notice is its influence on our sleep-wake cycle…our sleep pattern.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the sleep hormone, melatonin, which is produced and secreted by the pineal gland…a tiny gland located in the center of the brain. The pineal produces melatonin in response to the light information it gets from the SCN, which in turn got its information from light striking your retina.
During the day, the pineal is inactive, but as darkness arrives, it begins to produce melatonin which peaks around bedtime, stays elevated throughout the night, and then decreases back to daytime levels in the morning. Another hormone regulated by the circadian system is cortisol, made in your adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys. This hormone rises in the morning increasing your alertness and then at bedtime starts to decrease as melatonin secretion comes online.
So in the early morning when you go outside and get your first daylight exposure, the light that is falling on your retina is setting your circadian rhythm for the production that night of melatonin in the pineal gland. This light exposure also helps you to make serotonin one of the ingredients of melatonin so that more melatonin is made. In addition to melatonin being the sleep hormone, it is also a powerful antioxidant, so we want to make as much of it as we can naturally.
Let’s just briefly mention a few of the less than pleasant things that can happen to the human body when our circadian rhythm is out of sync: it’s well known now that night shift work, which disrupts the circadian clock, is associated with an increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, mood dysregulation, poor sleep, and obesity.
One of the things that night shift workers are exposed to is a high level of blue light, which has its own detrimental effects. Also, there has now been a link found between Circadian rhythm disruption and the development of Alzheimer's disease.
Modern science of course would have you think that studies on the biology of the human circadian rhythm are brand new and cutting edge, when in fact, the ancient Chinese knew about circadian clocks and their influence on bodily functions some 2500 years ago! They were masters of circadian optimization. In Chinese medicine, qi circulates continuously in an orderly sequence from one organ network to the next throughout both day and night, giving each organ network a period of maximum and minimum function. Every two hours, there is an alternating ebb and flow of qi.
For example, the time of peak function of the large intestine according to traditional Chinese medicine is from 5 to 7 am, which is just before the peak function of the stomach occurs from 7 to 9, suggesting emptying prior to receiving. This is a “modern” circadian clock based on current scientific research so you can see the ancient Chinese had remarkable knowledge about this aspect of human biology even then.
So, how can you optimize your circadian rhythm? It’s really pretty simple:
One - The first thing to do is to get out in the early morning sunlight, preferably before you have exposed your eyes to any artificial light, and get sun exposure on your face. This light information goes from your retina to your master clock, the SCN, in the hypothalamus and literally tells your body and its multitude of clocks what time it is and to sync up. I have heard this practice of morning sun exposure referred to as “downloading the day’s instructions for your body!”
Now you are not really getting any UV light that early in the am, as it’s all IR (infrared) and red, so you should also go back outside at around 9 am for 3 to 5 minutes to get a little bit of UV (UV index of 1 on your weather app) on your eyes as well to get the best melatonin production that night. IR is essential for making the neurotransmitter dopamine and syncing your clocks, but you do need a low level of UV which starts to mix in around 9 AM for optimal melatonin production.
Two - Protect your eyes when looking at electronic screens, even during the day by using blue light-blocking filters.
Three - After the sun goes down, wear ideally 100% blue-blocking glasses (we recommend Lucia Eyes) or use a red light at night. Use a red filter on electronic screens. This is a bit bothersome to get used to, but after a few nights of doing this, it will become second nature.
Blue light actively suppresses the production of melatonin, which explains why people have problems falling asleep after they have been working on their computers or other devices or even watching tv because they are exposing their eyes to blue light. Blue light at night also disrupts your circadian clock, causes increased appetite, and can lead to insulin resistance and obesity.
Four - Do not eat after the sun goes down as this can also throw off your circadian clock.
Five - You want to make sure your magnesium intake is adequate. Melatonin is synthesized from serotonin in the pineal gland and magnesium plays a role in increasing the activity of an enzyme critical for its synthesis.
Six - I’ll close with this discussion that took place over 2000 years ago between Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor of China who wrote The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine around 2600 BC, and his ministers:
Huang Di inquired of this minister: “I’ve heard that in the days of old everyone lived one hundred years without showing the usual signs of aging. In our time, however, people age prematurely, living only fifty years. Is this due to a change in the environment, or is it because people have lost the correct way of life?”
One of the ministers replied:
“In the past, people practiced the Tao, the Way of Life. They understood the principle of balance as represented by the transformations of the energies of the universe. They formulated exercises to promote energy flow to harmonize themselves within the universe. They ate a balanced diet at regular times, arose and retired at regular hours, avoided over-stressing their bodies and minds, and refrained from overindulgence of all kinds. They maintained well-being of body and mind; thus, it is not surprising that they lived over one hundred years.“These days, people have changed their way of life. They drink wine as though it were water, indulge excessively in destructive activities, drain their jing – the body’s essence that is stored in the Kidneys – and deplete their qi. They do not know the secret of conserving their energy and vitality. Seeking emotional excitement and momentary pleasures, people disregard the natural rhythm of the universe. They fail to regulate their lifestyle and diet and sleep improperly. So it is not surprising that they look old at fifty and die soon after.”
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Why It Matters
Paying attention to and optimizing your circadian rhythm may well be one of the most important things you can do for your health.
“We have made clocks that are perfectly in sync with the industrial machinery and the Information Age and perfectly out of sync with nature and our circadian rhythm.”
~ Khang Kijarro Nguyen - (b. 1990) - A multidisciplinary photographer, artist, and performer, Khang has presented dance theater works at Galapagos Art Space, WAX - Williamsburg Art Nexus, One Arm Red, Dance New Amsterdam, Williamsburg Arts, and Historic Center, and Foundations at the Forest (Edinburgh, Scotland). He has exhibited photographic works at TIXE Gallery (Chashama) and Dance New Amsterdam.
What We Are Reading 📚
With each issue, we bring you a short blurb on what we are currently reading or watching, including books, articles, podcasts, videos, movies, and research papers of value.
Denise - In keeping with the theme of circadian optimization, I ran across this article about the potential connection between the disruption of one’s circadian rhythms and Alzheimer’s Disease. I’ve been practicing Step One (above) fairly consistently for a couple of months and have found my sleep to be deeper and longer. I’m all in if this practice can lessen the risk of getting AD, which runs in my family.
Ellen - Do you have a favorite non-fiction book you have had for years? One that never goes out of date and is a treasure you can go back to time and time again to always learn something new?
Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide To Chinese Medicine by Harriet Beinfield, L.Ac. and Efrem Korngold, L.Ac., OMD, is just such a treasure. The authors write with a refreshing clarity about a subject that can be all too obscure. This book truly bridges the chasm between Eastern and Western medicine.
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