8 Ways To Connect With Health-Giving Natural Rhythms

Whether we realize it or not, we are all rhythmic creatures, designed to exist in sync with rhythms both internal and external — from the beating of our hearts to the patterns of night and day and the changing seasons.
 
These days, most people have some awareness of the concept of circadian rhythms — how light and dark influence a number of bodily functions — but unfortunately that awareness doesn’t seem to breed much respect! Instead, most of us are fighting nature’s rhythms every step of the way, and throwing our bodies out of whack, trying to accommodate our go-go, 24/7, on-demand lifestyles.
 
We flood our eyes with artificial light that keeps our brain switched on far into the night. We mess up our sleep rhythms traveling across multiple time zones or working night shifts. We air-condition our summers and overheat our winters, and we eat at all hours, out-of-season foods, shipped in from opposite hemispheres.
 
The bad news is, all that disruption comes at a health cost for bodies designed to thrive on balance and predictability. You may feel like you’re constantly dragging or swimming upstream, and what’s worse, you’re setting the stage for truly disruptive disease down the line. So, yes, rhythm is a serious business.
 
The good news is that you can reset your clocks and restore your rhythms — and the simple ways to do so may surprise you. This year, in this month of new beginnings, it’s time to start working on re-syncing yourself to support physical and mental health, now and for years to come. Here’s where to start. 

Your body’s master clock is running your rhythm ship.
Inside all of us is a “master clock,” in the brain’s hypothalamus, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). It receives information from cells in the eye about the duration and brightness of light throughout the day. The SCN then sends signals to all sorts of peripheral clocks located in other parts of the body — for example, ones that regulate digestion, immune system function, hormone secretion, etc. That’s why when your exposure to light and dark gets out of sync so many other processes in the body can be negatively affected. It’s a domino effect, but fortunately, it’s one that you can easily reverse.

Tether your good health foundation on the flow of rhythm.
The crux of restoring rhythm in your life is getting good sleep, which means quantity (getting enough), plus quality (getting the periods of deep sleep that you need), and timing (doing it in sync with your natural body clocks). It’s the last element that typically gets overlooked. Your sleep/wake cycle is influenced by several external factors, including changes in temperature and crossing time zones (jet lag and carb cravings, anyone?) Underlying it all is your exposure to the regular rhythms of light and dark over a 24-hour cycle. Quite simply, your body ‘entrains’ itself to the rhythm of the world you live in: to sleep when it’s dark, and to be wakeful when it’s light. The more tuned in you are to that, the better it is for virtually every system in your body.

When you snooze, you don’t lose — you boost health!
At one point or another we’ve all experienced sleep disruption, and the irritability, mood swings, brain fog, and even weight gain that can accompany it. But longer-term sleep problems can lead to the development of a number of chronic ills like diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even depression. Consequently, I can’t stress enough the importance of getting into a regular, restorative sleep rhythm as an essential part of your overall wellness plan.

Try my rhythm-righting prescription.
To put yourself back on the path of natural rhythm, try these essential steps and see how so many of your body’s systems get back on track as well:

1) Respect the rhythms of nature — And time your sleep to synchronize with them. You are a microcosm of the macrocosm, held in place by the cycles of light and dark, which, if you respect them, help keep you well. Fighting the natural order makes it tougher for your body to sustain health, so when you start to feel naturally sleepy — that’s your sleep-inducing hormone melatonin talking — take it as your signal to hit the hay. And then when you wake up in the morning, expose yourself to sunlight (preferably) or bright indoor light.

2) Tuck yourself in — Help your body find its optimal routine by going to bed at the same time each night. For most people, the body starts to secrete the hormone melatonin around 9 p.m., so turning in at about 10 p.m. (and definitely before 11 p.m.) is a good rule of thumb. Consistently get up every morning about seven or eight hours later as the melatonin starts to wind down (whether or not you consider yourself a lark or a night owl).

3) Don’t be fooled by that ‘second wind’ — When you push past your body’s natural wind-down cues, you’ll usually get a second wind of cortisol-induced energy, which will jack you up and make it harder to fall asleep later. Bottom line: listen to your body; stop fighting it.

4) Side-step “social jet lag” — As in, keep your bedtime and rising schedule as similar as possible every day of the week, including weekends. Staying up extra late on weekends, then forcing yourself to be an early riser on Monday, throws off your rhythms. The more you can stay on schedule all week, the easier it will be to catch your natural sleep wave each night, which encourages better function across the board.

5) Turn back the clock — And by that I mean wind the clock back on bedtime, particularly if it’s been slipping into the far-too-late-zone. For several nights in a row, turn in 10 minutes earlier than you normally would, until you achieve your desired earlier bedtime. You can also use a wearable light therapy device called the Re-Timer, which helps your body naturally adjust to your preferred sleep time. If, despite your best efforts, you can’t seem to fall asleep until well past midnight, you might need a more formal assist and for that, I’d recommend chronotherapy, a therapeutic regimen to help reset your circadian rhythms. It has also been shown to help with the depression that is so often related to sleep disorders.

6) Banish the blue light — Lots of blue light in the evenings will disrupt your circadian rhythms. So, if you’re working in the kitchen until 11 p.m, under bright lights, naturally, it’s going to be harder to wind down. Dimming the lights throughout your home a few hours before bed will help, but better yet, try to complete “brightly lit” activities much earlier in the evening, then spend the latter part of your evening in softer, lower lighting. Use low incandescent light bulbs, amber lamps, salt lamps, glow lights, brown paper lampshades, and/or candles to emit a campfire glow which has a profoundly soothing effect.

7) Commit to a regular, relaxing, evening rhythm — Evenings are about winding down, so put yourself on a schedule that’s all about downshifting, and make it routine, so there is a natural rhythm to your nights. Try to finish eating and drinking about four hours before bed. Turn off all screens about three hours prior, take a hot bath, do some restorative yoga or meditation an hour or two before turning in, and by the time you slide into bed, your mind and body will be ready for sleep.

8) Embrace rhythm in daily life too — As you reconnect with rhythm, keep in mind that when you exercise and when you eat also play a role in keeping your body humming. Try to exercise and take your meals at roughly the same time every day, so your body’s not having to second-guess what’s coming next, or having to work overtime to compensate. Also, take in the bulk of your calories earlier in the day and try to wrap up all meals by 6 or 7 p.m. Break your fast anywhere from 12 -16 hours later to give your body the time it needs to rest, repair, replenish, and restore. This will also help keep insulin levels stable and give your digestive system a well-needed rest. Though for some it might seem like a long time between meals, this time-restricted eating approach has been shown to offer numerous short- and long-term health benefits.
 
Just remember: to find your rhythm, you’ve got to listen to your body, treat it with respect, and welcome a regular routine that will make your body sing!

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