It’s Not What You Do, But When You Do It: Biohacking Your Body With Chronotherapy
This Tuesday, I was at the grocery store acquiring the goods with which I hoped I would create the tacos of my dreams (and succeeded, in case you were wondering; they were delicious). Near the checkout, the covers of The New York Times and Time Special Edition caught my eye. Alternative therapies including plant medicine, mindfulness, and an overall holistic approach to well-being peppered the covers and pages. A new approach to healthcare seems to be upon us and I am all about it.
Now, many of us at PD have been moving in these circles for years. We’re no strangers to what mainstream society might refer to as “alternative” therapies, diets, or treatments. These are things not found within the confines of four white hospital walls, but rather from nature. Biohacking, microdosing, nootropics, energy work and the like seem to be the overarching wellness themes moseying in from the periphery. In my most humble opinion, I think it’s worth at least dipping one’s toe in the water.
As a physiologist interested in sleep and circadian rhythms (our internal body clock), I lend a thought (or several hundred) each day to the ways our sleep and waking habits impact our physical and mental health. The wonders that a serene slumber can do for us cannot be overstated. From helping us solve a multi-faceted conundrum to making sense of complex new concepts learned that day, the old adage about sleeping on it holds more than an infinitesimal grain of wisdom.
It has long been known that our bodies regulate themselves with a roughly 24-hour internal clock that governs everything from that sleep to mood, metabolism and even libido. An evolutionary masterpiece perfected over millennia, our circadian rhythm orchestrates our lives in a divine symphony for maximal success in survival and breeding. Only, sometimes we push it, don’t we? The social jet lag, the disruption from mobile devices and the abundance of light pollution throw off our ability to respond to environmental cues for sleep and wake. And when this gets out of whack, things start to get more than a little screwed up.
Technology and lifestyle are shifting more rapidly than our physiology can evolve to keep up with them. This manifests in numerous diseases, ranging from cardiovascular disease and stroke to Alzheimer’s. Cultivating good sleep hygiene is, therefore, essential to optimizing health. But, what about the other activities that fill our day? What’s going on in the body from dawn ’til dusk and how can we increase the efficiency of what we ingest and how we spend our time, simply by keeping the clock in mind?
Russell Foster & Leon Kreitzman outline the ebb and flow of our energetic highs and lows in their bestselling book, Circadian Rhythms: A Very Short Introduction. Mornings feature peak libido and blood pressure between 6-8am (coinciding with peak cortisol and testosterone release). This is also when we have the highest glucose tolerance. Translation: mornings call for sex and a nutritious breakfast. It’s also worth noting that peak death from stroke and heart attack occur in the morning, so that mindfulness practice to reduce stress levels is definitely worth indulging in upon waking. Restful starts to the day are key (along with any blood pressure medications the night before).
Let’s briefly discuss cortisol. The body’s main stress hormone, cortisol serves an important function in stirring us from our sleep in the morning. Too much for too long, though, as is the case during prolonged periods of stress, and we suffer from all kinds of uncomfortable things such as anxiety, depression, concentration problems and sleep disturbances. Using libido to your advantage, keep cortisol levels in check with time between the sheets. And if you’re a fan of adaptogens, research suggests that ashwagandha lowers cortisol levels, so it might be good to supplement it with your breakfast. Lower cortisol leads to greater intimacy, thus setting you up on the right track for the day.
When it comes to what you eat, the time of day that you indulge matters profoundly. Insulin sensitivity has been shown to be impaired by about 30% in normal, healthy adults in the evening. That sugary snack late at night? Not such a good idea, as it turns out. A 2013 weight loss study found that those who ate lunch before 3pm lost more weight than those who ate later in the day. It’s all about that glucose tolerance.
After breakfast comes peak logical reasoning from about mid-morning ’til noon. This means activities that require thinking, so consider digging into those projects at hand. This is also a great time to take an exam.
After the lunchtime lull, our coordination and reaction times pick up at 2:30pm and 3:30pm respectively, followed by an all- time high in cardiovascular efficiency and strength around 5pm. You do you, of course, but if you’re finding the gym before work in the morning to be a killer, try switching to on your way home instead. I certainly recognize in my own life a significant difference in my flexibility and strength if I step onto my yoga mat at 4pm vs first thing in the morning.
As we move further into the evening, we see melatonin secretion begin around 9pm, allergic reactions peak between 10pm-12am and another peak in libido during the same time. Facilitating healthy melatonin release by keeping blue light-emitting devices to a minimum in the evening helps ensure that you get that all-important deep sleep between midnight and 6am. Did you know that ovulation is also most likely to occur between midnight and 6am? Those trying to conceive might benefit from trying during those peak libido windows either side of this.
Every body is a different body and there is certainly truth to the notion that some of us are morning larks while others night owls, but what matters is paying attention. It’s what we do, but also when we do it that, together, can make us masters of our health. How could you use chronotherapy to biohack your body today?