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Early Bird or Night Owl? Tune Your Circadian Rhythm to Slow Aging

New research shows that when you eat, sleep, fast, and exercise may be the ultimate regulator of your health and the rate at which you age. Your circadian rhythm, or internal biological clock, not only regulates your sleep-wake cycle, hormone release, and digestion but is also regulated by these actions. When this rhythm is disrupted, it can lead to health problems, as well as accelerate signs of aging. You can tune into your body’s biological clock, however, and use it as the greatest (and simplest) anti-aging secret. Let’s dive into just how important a good night's sleep really is, and how you can protect your circadian rhythm.

Integrative medicine can help you optimize your body's master clock to protect against chronic diseases, metabolic disorders, and signs of accelerated aging. Keep reading to find out more.

Circadian rhythms are out of sync

Today, our biology is falling out of sync with our environment. Circadian rhythm disorders are on the rise in our modern, 24/7 society, and occur as a result of disruption to our sleep-wake cycle.

Humans are a rhythmic species. Throughout history, we have adapted our internal clocks to follow a 24-hour, day-night cycle. We adjust our eating habits, activity, and sleeping pattern to a regular schedule. But this adaptation isn't just born out of convenience—nearly all internal physiological processes, including immune function, digestion, and metabolism are modulated by circadian rhythms.

Shift work, jet lag, eating, and being active during the biological resting phase put the human body at risk for circadian rhythm disruption.

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Disruption of our circadian rhythms causes disease

Inadequate or low-quality sleep is associated with an increased risk of common diseases including psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, metabolic and cardiovascular disorders, immune system dysfunction, and some kinds of cancer.

Researchers believe many of these mechanisms have to do with a disruption in overall circadian rhythm (1).

Read more: How to Protect Your Brain from Early-Onset Dementia

Deteriorating circadian rhythm is associated with aging

Older adults experience a breakdown in circadian rhythms. As we age, we typically have trouble staying asleep and will wake up in the middle of the night, or much earlier than normal. It's at this time when we also begin to notice hallmark signs of "normal" aging, such as loss of muscle mass, decline in function, insulin resistance, increased body fat, hypertension, and other metabolic diseases.

It is therefore also assumed that negative interactions exist between metabolism and circadian regulation during the aging process. Because of this link between the circadian rhythms and metabolism, the body's internal clock could be a valuable target for increasing longevity (2).

If aging reprograms the interactions among the body's master clock, metabolism, and gene regulation, then it's possible the re-activation of circadian rhythms contributes directly to metabolic health and maintaining youth.

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When you eat, sleep, fast, and exercise controls how you age

Your circadian rhythm is intimately connected with your metabolism and the rate at which you age. Aging is associated with a 'dampened' circadian rhythm behavior, including the disruption of cyclic hormones, body temperature changes, and sleep-wake cycles, as well as sleep quality and quantity (2). 

Circadian rhythm disruption is also associated with metabolic dysregulations, including obesity, diabetes, hyperglycemia, and insulin resistance.

Environmental and external cues, like light and darkness, mealtimes, and fasting periods maintain a certain amount of control over circadian functions.

Time-restricted eating to solidify circadian rhythms

Intermittent fasting, and following regular time-restricted eating can help to optimize your biological clock and protect you against many diseases associated with aging.

The more consistent your circadian rhythm, the better able your body maintains muscle, manages blood sugar, and repairs cells and tissues.

A plausible explanation for the link between circadian rhythms and metabolism is the control of sirtuins (2). Sirtuins are epigenetic regulators which have been implicated within the last decade as controlling DNA repair and mitigating the aging process.

Should you fast? Work with a certified nutrition professional to optimize your diet.

Sleep patterns

Sleep patterns are another primary feedback mechanism that regulates circadian rhythm. Going to bed at the same time each night, and getting adequate, high-quality sleep improves metabolic control and overall health.

Poor sleep contributes to poorer yet circadian rhythm control, leading to health conditions. This is the primary reason night shift workers have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Conditions we treat: Hypertension, or high blood pressure.

Exercise and activity

Exercise during the day functions to 'advance' your circadian rhythm, in that it helps your metabolism optimize energy expenditure differences during the day vs. at night.

The best time to exercise for circadian rhythm benefit appears to be at 7:00 am, or from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm (3). Based on circadian rhythms, our muscles seem to perform best in the afternoon.

If you're normally a night owl who likes to be active in the wee hours of the night, you might benefit from a shift to an earlier bedtime: Activity during the body's biological resting phase (or the middle of the night) alters energy expenditure and contributes to metabolic dysregulation. This may explain why those who have trouble sleeping typically have higher body weight.

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Circadian medicine

Knowledge of circadian rhythm influence on the human body has grown rapidly. Directly targeting the biological clock or using timing as a variable in drug therapy are now important considerations when treating patients. 

For example, in rheumatoid arthritis therapy, application of modified-release prednisone in the evening (with drug release during the second half of the night) reduces peak levels of inflammatory cytokines during the night, thus maximizing pain relief and effectiveness of the medication (4).

Similarly, many surgical interventions benefit from taking into account a person’s internal clock. For example, major complications associated with certain heart procedures are lower when surgery is performed in the afternoon instead of in the morning (5).

Interventions or medications targeting major common diseases such as hypertension, cancer, asthma, and arthritis also benefit from a ‘timed’ approach (6).

Related: Managing Chronic Disease with Integrative Medicine

Different patterns for different people

Are you a night owl, or an early bird, and what’s better in terms of health?

Being an early bird has long been associated with better health outcomes: better sleep, balanced hormones, greater focus, and attention during the day.

Night owls have greater brain activity later in the day, and often struggle to maintain the same focus and motivation during the hours of the socially-accepted daytime and workday. Early birds tend also to have fewer health problems than night owls, who have higher rates of chronic disease and metabolic conditions (7).

Should night owls try to shift their sleeping patterns?

It would seem that early risers have the clear win for health outcomes, but evolutionary biologists think that being a night owl isn’t necessarily a problem—unless you’re trying to adhere to a schedule that doesn’t align with your natural internal clock

For example, early humans may have been more likely to survive if different members of their group had naturally varied sleep schedules. If not everyone falls asleep at the exact same time, then some members can stay awake and maintain watch over those who are resting.

To reinforce this idea, a study of a modern-day hunter-gatherer tribe found that during a three-week period, there were only 18 minutes during which all of the 33 tribe members were asleep simultaneously. They also found that temperature changes were the most significant regulator of sleep patterns—something that’s almost obsolete in our modern environment (8).

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Tuning your circadian rhythm for better health

The best things you can do for your health and longevity are simple: prioritize sleep, a moderate intake of healthy food, and encourage regularity in your routine with sleeping, eating, and exercise.

  • Keep a routine that works for you. Food and your sleep schedule influence your enzymes, genes, and metabolic regulators, which provide feedback to keep circadian rhythms stable.
  • Take screens out of your bedroom, and keep it cool. Devices used before bedtime are one of the biggest disruptions to hormones normally produced as a precursor to quality sleep. And studies suggest that decreased environmental temperature might be the biggest factor regulating sleep.
  • Go to bed at the same time every night. Your circadian rhythm likes a consistent structure and routine.
  • Match indoor light exposure to that of your outdoor environment as much as is practical. Light exposure in the evening, not just blue light, alters the function of your circadian clock rhythm. 

Other facts about circadian rhythm

Children are more sensitive to light, especially at night. Even slight exposure to light can suppress the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin by as much as 90% in preschoolers in the hour before bedtime (9). This decline in melatonin reduces restorative sleep, increases cravings for junk food, and may negatively impact development.

Circadian rhythm also rejuvenates skin cells. Sleep patterns are an important regulator of the metabolic processes that allow stem cells within the skin to thrive (10). 

Anti-Aging with Integrative Medicine

Science is perpetually on a quest to discover the next exciting thing to turn back the clock on aging. New research indicates it’s not a product or procedure, but the ability to recapture our “young” circadian rhythm that not only reduces the risk of disease but keeps us feeling and looking great, too. This internal biological clock is highly sensitive to diet and lifestyle. Therefore, the revision of our daily lifestyle related to biological rhythms, including when we eat, our sleep/wake cycles, and even when we exercise, could be paramount for healthy aging. 

Resources 

  1. https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3001567
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2468501121000080?via%3Dihub
  3. https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/JP276943
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18207016/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29107324/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33010213/ 
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7423711/
  8. https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(15)01157-4
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34997782/
  10. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150106154607.htm 

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