In This Article
The Science of Circadian Rhythms and Ayurveda
Nearly two decades ago, Scientific American published an article that stating circadian medicine would essentially revolutionize medicine as we know it.
Then, four years ago, three American researchers won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on circadian rhythms.
Circadian medicine is clearly important.
It is also the basis of most ancient medical systems, including Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, which promote diets and lifestyles that are in sync with the daily, monthly, and seasonal cycles of nature.
I have been on the faculty of two Ayurvedic colleges for decades now, and every Ayurveda 101 class learns circadian medicine—a study of how to live, eat, and breathe in harmony with nature.
Continued circadian research has found that there are biological clocks in every cell of the body that regulate the activity of about 40 percent of our genes.
Ayurveda understood that what we now call biological clocks must be in sync with the light-dark, or circadian, cycles of nature. Millions of years of engineering have gone into making sure these cellular clocks go off and on at the right time of day, night, winter, spring, and summer.
This article will give you all of the basics of circadian rhythms and how our biological clocks can be better managed through Ayurvedic practices.
The Circadian Clock vs. The Ayurvedic Clock
The Ayurvedic clock is made up of four-hour intervals throughout the day with strengths and weaknesses associated with each of those intervals. For example, digestive strength is greater at midday and detox activity is stronger at night.
If you compare the circadian clock with the Ayurvedic clock, the two completely complement each other. See the images below.
The Benefits of Being in Sync with Nature
Being in sync with circadian rhythms has bountiful benefits.
When your body is attuned to light-dark cycles and the seasons, you may find you:
- Sleep better
- Can more effectively manage your moods
- Build a healthier microbiome
- Have an easier time finding a healthy weight, balancing blood sugar, and boosting metabolism
- Support anxiety relief
Melatonin’s Role in Circadian Medicine
The governor of the light-dark, seasonal, and daily cycles that drive each one of our cells’ biological clocks is melatonin. Many think melatonin is simply a sleep hormone, but that is an oversimplification of its role.
There are many strategies to reset your circadian clock—range from shifting your lifestyle, such as having a “no artificial light weekend,” to eating melatonin-rich foods, to a three-month circadian reset with safe melatonin supplementation.
The Nobel Prize-Winning Research on Circadian Rhythms
Congratulations to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young—the joint winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. They deservingly won for their discoveries of how internal clocks and biological rhythms govern human life.
Their research identified the gene that encodes certain proteins to build up in a cell at night and dissipate at night. Each cell carries these light-dark cycle genes. The takeaway from the researchers was somewhat of a wake-up call. They suggest that jet lag, late nights, shift work, and a total disregard for our biological clocks comes with serious consequence.
Consider what happens, for instance, if we eat late or in the middle of the night. In the late evening, our master clock, which is set by the light-dark cycle, is cuing all of the other clocks in the body that it’s time to rest. “The clock in the brain is sending signals saying: Do not eat, do not eat!” Fred Turek, director of The Center for Sleep & Circadian Biology, told NPR in a 2017 article.
When we override this signal and eat anyway, the clock in your pancreas, for instance, is forced to start releasing insulin to deal with the meal. Research suggests that this late-night munching may start to actually reset the clock in the organ. The result? Competing time cues.
“The pancreas is listening to signals related to food intake. But that’s out of sync with what the brain is telling it to do,” says Turek. “So, if we’re sending signals to those organs at the wrong time of day, we’re upsetting the balance.”
There is mounting evidence that we may be more sensitive to these timing cues than scientists ever imagined. Ayurveda is founded on this very principle.