The Ayurvedic Circadian Longevity Lifestyle
- Imagine finishing your day with the same energy you started your day with . . .
- Imagine going through your day without craving sweets, coffee, or chips . . .
- Imagine waking up early, without an alarm, refreshed and ready to go . . .
- Imagine feeling like your life is not a struggle—like the wind is at your back and you are floating joyfully downstream on the river of life!
- Imagine feeling healthier instead of older with each passing year . . .
These are not pipe dreams; they are the reality of living with awareness in connection with the cycles of nature—the benefits of syncing up with nature’s circadian rhythms are well-supported by the new science of circadian medicine.1
Circadian Medicine according to Ancient Wisdom
In nature, according to Ayurveda and similar principles in traditional Chinese medicine, there are two 12-hour cycles divided into three smaller cycles. Each four-hour cycle is linked to certain bodily functions governed by one of the following:
- Vata (air element, increases in winter): controls the nervous system
- Pitta (fire element, increases in summer): controls digestion and metabolism
- Kapha (earth-water elements, increases in spring): controls immunity and structural strength
According to Ayurveda, the daily lifestyle flow that syncs the body with nature’s rhythms is also backed by circadian science,1 and is as follows.
First 12 Hours of the Day: 6am – 6pm
Note: Imagine 6am is sunrise and 6pm is sunset.
- 6am-10am: After sunrise, kapha increases, corresponding to the earth and water elements and the season of spring. Spring is a time of year where the earth holds more water, it is a muddy, heavy, congestive time of year. The morning is a heavy time of day. Can you recall the feeling of being stiff, heavy, and dull when you sleep in too late? This is an example of the heavy qualities of nature increasing during the morning hours.
On the flip side, if you’re up before sunrise, you can avoid morning stiffness, making morning the best time for exercise and physical labor. The heavier stiff qualities experienced when you sleep in can provide structural strength to physical labor and exercise. Nature made sure we had strength for manual labor before the noon-day heat. One study shows morning exercise actually lowers stress hormones, which may be why so many folks like exercising in the morning. It makes the whole day feel better.3
This is also the time to eat at a good-sized breakfast, as it not only provides you a good source of fuel for the day, but studies find eating a healthy-sized breakfast helps reduce obesity and disease.3-6
- 10am-2pm: Pitta increases, corresponding to the fire element and the seasons of late spring into summer. This is the best time to relax and eat the biggest meal of the day because the digestive fire is at its strongest, hottest, and brightest, just like the sun overhead at noon.7 Eating earlier in the day, including a good breakfast and lunch, has been linked to numerous health benefits, including reduced cholesterol and stress.4 Not only that, but the nutrient blueprint of the vegetables we eat has been found to be most potent at noon: a perfect nutritional gift from nature.8,9
Wait, think about that for a second. Two studies found that vegetables, even after harvesting, increased in nutrient potency at noon, when our digestive strength is highest. Fascinating studies like these make it much harder to ignore the fact that we are intimately connected to the circadian cycles of nature. Also, noon-ish is also the best time to digest hard-to-digest foods, like wheat and dairy.
If you skip lunch, like many people do, the circadian digestive clock still goes off. Hydrochloric acid (agni) in the stomach is still produced and, if there is no food to digest, this can predispose the stomach to acid irritation and inflammation down the road. This is the one meal that you do not want to miss.
- 2pm-6pm: Vata increases, corresponding to the air and ether elements and winter. This is the best time for mental and creative energy, as the nervous system is more active at this time of day. Craving sweets at this time indicates exhaustion, blood sugar issues, poor digestion, or that you didn’t eat a sufficient lunch. This is the best time for a light supper, as heavy suppers do not digest well.10
Ask yourself how you feel during these hours of the day. If you are nibbling on dark chocolate, ordering a latte, or ready for a nap, this is an indicator that your blood sugar may be crashing. Many people skip lunch because they are afraid they will fall asleep in the afternoon. If you eat a meal and feel the need to pass out, you clearly are not digesting your food well enough. So, instead of injecting yourself with caffeine, sugar, or chips, let’s fix the underlying issue in your digestive system.
When the digestive system is optimal, you will feel energized from a large, relaxing, well-prepared meal—not comatose.
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Second 12 Hours of the Day: 6pm – 6am
Note: The cycles repeat, but with different effects.
- 6pm-10pm: Kapha increases again. This time the heaviness is not for physical labor, but rather to settle the body and mind in preparation for sleep. This is the time when cortisol (the stress-handling hormone) drops.11 Sleepy-time, here she comes!
In the West, this is the time most people sit down to eat the largest meal of the day. According to the circadian clock, the kitchen closes at sunset. According to science and thousands of years of tradition around the world, we should eat a big breakfast, a big lunch, and a light early supper. While it may be difficult for everyone to stop and make lunch the biggest meal of the day, more and more of my patients report that they really dread eating a heavy late supper.
Personally, we have six kids. My wife and I almost always have a big lunch together . . . it’s our time. Then, in the evening, we all sit down for a family meal, but because we are both still quite full from lunch, neither of us prefers a big dinner. So, while the kids are chowing down, we have a light supper and very important family time. It works great!
- 10pm-2am: Pitta increases again. Many folks get a second wind during this time of night. It is common to be sleepy at 8 or 9pm (in the kapha time of night), but by 10, you feel ready to go until 2am. It is the pitta time of night, and we can get all fired up! This, however, is not the best time to change the world on your computer; it is actually the best time to be asleep. During these hours, the liver goes into detoxification mode in an attempt to prepare the body for the next day.12,13 If you are up late regularly, you will disturb this circadian rhythm and the liver will not be able to effectively detoxify the body.
It is much like a janitor coming into your office to wash floors and clean windows. The janitor notices you just finished a steak dinner at 9pm and you just started watching a movie at 10. The janitor simply cannot do their job and decides to call it a night and try again tomorrow. Disturbing this cycle for years on end can lead to the inability to detoxify, liver and gallbladder congestion, and a compromised ability to digest.
- 2am-6am: Vata increases again. This is a very important part of the sleep cycle. This is the time when the brain drain toxins into microscopic lymph vessels. Many people find it difficult to sleep during these hours. The sense is that they have too much energy, but the reality is most sleep concerns are a result of chronic exhaustion: too little energy, not too much. The nervous system actually needs energy to sedate itself and fall asleep. In Ayurvedic practice, we never give sedatives for sleep. We give deep rejuvenation herbs to help rebuild the nervous system so it can reconnect with circadian rhythms.
This is the best time to sleep deeply and naturally, waking up before sunrise.14-16 In traditional cultures, sunrise was when you started the day, but predawn was reserved for bathing, yoga, meditation, and prayer. Work didn’t start until after sunrise. The best way to be able to get up before sunrise is to regularly go to bed before 10pm.
When to Sleep
Imagine you went to bed tonight at midnight and woke up tomorrow at 10am. How would you feel? In my seminars, when I ask this question, most folks (barring teenagers) say they would feel stiff, groggy, and as if they slept too much.
Imagine the next night, you went to bed at 8pm and woke up at 6am. How would you feel in comparison? Most folks say without hesitation that they would feel more rested, alert, awake, flexible, and as if they got a great night’s sleep.
Surprisingly, both night’s sleep were 10 hours. How you feel from these two different night’s sleep is not about how much sleep you got; it’s all about when you got it. This is an example of the difference between living in sync with circadian cycles or going against them.
Living in sync with circadian rhythms is the foundation of Ayurveda. Living a lifestyle downstream with these powerful cycles is what makes life flow. It’s why birds fly south and whales migrate. These are the rhythms of life that have been forgotten by a culture too distracted to appreciate the rewards of a life in sync with, rather than in spite of, nature.