In This Article
Getting an Early Start
A year before I moved to India, I learned to play polo on the very lumpy corn fields of Iowa. It was nothing fancy, just me and a friend battling it out on the pasture and in an indoor arena. It’s safe to say I was consumed by this game, so when I moved to India to learn Ayurveda, I joined the President’s Estate Polo Club in New Delhi─for just $80 for six months.
Because of the hot temperatures, they only allowed the horses to exercise, or “stick and ball” as they call it, at sunrise, when it’s cooler. This meant getting up very early. I was studying about an hour away from the polo club, so to get there in time for practice I had to start driving at 4 a.m. Each morning, while the roads were empty, the farming fields were bustling with life. Lights were on and folks were carrying water, cooking on open fires, and going here and there in preparation for the day. I kept asking myself, what are these people doing up so early—it was still pitch black!
How Sleeping In Impacts Your Blood Sugar
It turns out those farmers were getting their work done before it got to hot, while also doing what was best for their health and biological clocks. Sleeping in after sunrise may seem like the best way to get some much-needed rest, but it comes with a cost.
New studies that have evaluated the body’s biological clock suggest that when you sleep and eat, as well as exercise, plays an important role in maintaining healthy weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels.6
In this article I’ll discuss how you can regulate your blood sugar by simply adjusting your circadian rhythms, or the hormonal cycles of the body that help us sleep when it is dark and get things done when it’s light out.
The Best Time to Wake Up in Ayurveda
According to Ayurveda, the optimal time to wake up is before sunrise. Traditional cultures that were connected to the circadian rhythms of nature woke up before the sunrise in order to be prepared to greet the day and get all of their work done before it got too hot. In contrast, most of us now wake up well after the sun rises, leaving us vulnerable to harmful circadian imbalances, which can lead to high blood sugar, weight gain, sleep problems, mental health issues, poor digestion, and a compromised immune system.1-3
The sunrise represents a shift in your circadian cycle. Melatonin levels plummet, cortisol and vitamin D levels rise, digestive enzymes are produced, and blood sugar levels rise to fuel the metabolic needs of the day.6
In Ayurveda, the vata time of night, when we are governed by the mind and often feel light and calm, is 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., followed by sunrise and the kapha time of morning, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., which is governed by the body and feels heavier.
About 90 minutes before the sunrise is a period called navaswan, which is the time just before the sky shifts from pitch black to that first hint of gray. This is considered the most peaceful time of the day and was when meditation was traditionally performed. By sunrise, traditional cultures had already been up and active and were there to greet the day—in India, this was and is often with the series of yoga postures called Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutation.
We Recommend How to do Yoga Sun Salutations
From a historic perspective, after the sunrise, kapha qualities in the morning provided strength and endurance for physical chores before the heat of the day. But if sleep continues after sunrise, these kapha qualities can cause heaviness, dullness, and stiffness, making it even more difficult to get out of bed. That heavy after-sunrise-sleep-in feeling is associated with a rise in morning blood sugars.2,3,5 Sleeping in past sunrise has the same metabolic effect as sleeping during the day, with blood sugar levels significantly higher than they are during normal nighttime sleeping.5
At night, particularly between midnight and 2-3 a.m., depending on the season, the body is more sensitive to insulin, efficiently moving glucose (sugar) out of the blood stream and into cells, which lowers and stabilizes blood sugar. At around 4 a.m., or a couple hours before sunrise and the kapha time of day, a decline in insulin sensitivity starts that causes cells to resist the uptake of glucose. This effect causes blood sugar levels to rise in the early morning as a way to fuel the body to start the day. The effect is called the dawn phenomenon.2,3
Once again, we see how traditional cultures, as I experienced on my way to polo practice, lived a lifestyle in sync with natural rhythms. In those rural communities outside of New Delhi, they were all in bed shortly after the sunset and up significantly before sunrise.
Sleep, Blood Sugar, and Age
With age, the amount of sugar released in the morning rises and our ability to absorb and utilize that sugar declines, predisposing many Americans to higher blood sugar levels.2,3 Also, as we get older, sleep can become disturbed, which can contribute to high morning blood sugar.4 Getting out of bed at or before sunrise can reset your circadian clock and help lower and stabilize blood sugar.
One of the most reliable measures of healthy blood sugar is a fasting glucose test taken in the morning. One of the reasons this test gives more accurate results when it’s taken right after waking up is because blood sugar levels can surge to higher-than-normal levels after sunrise with diet, age, lifestyle, and other things that create misalignment with circadian rhythms. Chronically waking up after the sunrise allows morning blood sugars to rise to unnecessarily dangerous levels.
Because of the natural rise in morning blood sugar, getting to bed early enough so you can get up early, preferably before the sunrise, is the first step in aligning your circadian clock and avoiding an unnecessary rise in blood sugar. To avoid the impact of the dawn phenomenon, kick-start your metabolism, and lower blood sugar, it helps to move your body with a 15-20 minute walk or Sun Salutations.6 Eating breakfast is also a critical activity as it initiates metabolic activity and tells cells to start letting sugar-carrying insulin in to drive cellular energy.
We Recommend 10 Compelling Reasons to Not Skip Breakfast
Monitor Your Blood Sugar to Reset Your Circadian Clock
Pick up an over-the-counter blood sugar monitor and start taking your fasting glucose each morning, within one hour of rising. Record it for the first week, making no major changes to your diet or lifestyle. It doesn’t matter if you wake up early, late, or sleep in, just take the test when you are finally up. During the second week, set your alarm for 1 1/2 hours before sunrise and take and record your fasting blood sugar each morning at that time. If you need to go back to bed, that’s fine, but when you finally do get up, take your blood sugar again and then compare the numbers.
After two weeks, compare the first week with the second.
Most likely, you’ll find that your readings before sunrise will be much lower than your after sunrise numbers. If the difference is significant or your numbers are above 95 mg/dL from any of your blood tests, you may have a circadian imbalance. Numbers over 100 mg/dL are considered in the prediabetes range and numbers over 126 mg/ dL are considered indicative of type 2 diabetes. (If your results are over 100 mg/dL, check with your medical doctor.)
Keeping your fasting glucose in the 80s each morning is a powerful measure of youthful metabolism as you age.6
To remedy significant differences, start going to bed early enough to comfortably get up before the sunrise. Make a habit of watching the sunrise each morning. If it’s not possible to get up before the sunrise, then go for a 15-20 minute walk or practice light yoga as soon as you get up and recheck your blood sugar shortly thereafter. You’ll see that walking or light yoga will bring your blood sugar down, but vigorous exercise and weight training, while still beneficial, it will temporarily raise blood sugar.
7 Steps to Align Your Sleep with Circadian Rhythms
Here’s how you can align your biological clock with circadian rhythms.5
- Eat light and reduce carbs at supper
- Stop eating after 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.
- Use blue light blockers or screen filters for nighttime screen viewing We RecommendWhy You Can’t Sleep: The Dark Side of Blue Light
- Go to bed two hours after sunset
- Get out of bed before the sunrise
- Exercise in the morning
- Eat breakfast
- Take a walk after every meal
The Power of Living in Sync with Nature
Studies evaluating circadian rhythms of Americans found that the average adult has a circadian clock imbalance. In one study at the University of Colorado in Boulder researchers evaluated the melatonin and cortisol levels of a group of healthy adults. Normally, melatonin should surge when the sun sets and vanish during the day. Cortisol, a stress hormone should surge during the day and dial down shortly after sunset. They found just the opposite in the majority of these “healthy” adults.
They took them all camping for a week in the mountains, away from city lights and technology. Within one week they all had a 100% restoration of the circadian clock. Melatonin stopped surging in the middle of the day and cortisol dialed down for deep sleep after sunset, as it should. They did a follow-up study and took another group with a circadian imbalance on an off-the-grid camping trip for just a weekend. In that weekend, they measure a 69% restoration of circadian rhythms in study subjects.1
Try a no artificial light weekend at home to reset your circadian clock and let us know how it affects you and your blood sugar.