The Circadian Rhythm: How Sunlight and Food Affect Sleep

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“Brakes break for a reason.” —The Hundred-Foot Journey
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A dear friend flew in last Christmas and our party ended pretty late. It was around 2 a.m. when we called it a night. As I was driving on my way home, comfortably cruising along the highway—perhaps almost too comfortably— my eyelids suddenly felt really heavy. My eyes began shutting down uncontrollably and I found myself struggling to stay awake. At the blink of an eye, I almost crashed at an intersection. Luckily, when my body jerked me awake, I made it in time to avoid the counter-flowing vehicle in front of me. How did I get to this state? What could have I done wrong? Have I not been sleeping enough that my body is starting to catch up on me? As I recounted the weeks prior, indeed I had being having long waking hours and have not been getting enough sleep. Our bodies are really smart and it will do everything for it to survive. When we abuse our bodies and steal the recovery it needs, it will go on autopilot and make sure it gets what it needs. A forced shutdown is part of this survival mechanism and often times when it happens, it happens during an inconvenient time. Hopefully when our bodies start trying to protect itself, we can learn to listen and start taking care of ourselves more. So as we begin the year, let’s start with the end in mind. After a long day of hard work, it is really sleep and restoration that we need.
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Our bodies are really smart and it will do everything for it to survive. When we abuse our bodies and steal the recovery it needs, it will go on autopilot and make sure it gets what it needs.
We are not sleeping enough
According to Dr. Rangan Chatterjee, a pioneer in the lifestyle medicine movement, modern society is simply not getting enough sleep. He says that we are in the middle of a sleep deprivation epidemic and that we have so much distraction existing in our lives. In his book “The 4 Pillar Plan”, he says that “we live in a ‘sleep is for wimps’ culture that associates our natural and critical bodily function with laziness.” Scientists at Oxford University also claim that we are sleeping about one to two hours less sleep per night than we did sixty years ago.
“If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process ever made.” —Dr. Allan Rechtschaffen
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So as we begin the year, let’s start with the end in mind. After a long day of hard work, it is really sleep and restoration that we need.
Nowadays, we are doing more and more. We are bending our backs to meet tighter deadlines without realizing the importance of recovery in our overall health. We would go on invest a lot of money on real food but proper nutrition is not the only prerequisite for health. We can ramp up the intensity in our exercise to stimulate more muscle growth, but without sleep, we won’t be able to use the nutritional building blocks from food to restore our worn-out bodies. We have the audacity to cut back on sleep and work longer hours thinking what we can be more productive in our jobs. However, the only time our brains clear out its Alzheimer’s-causing waste material is during deep quality sleep. As I’ll discuss later, sleep is absolutely critical for total health and well-being.
“If you don’t get very much activity, or if you lack adequate sleep, no matter how healthy your diet, your body will not be able to put the food you eat into building muscle and that keeps you stuck in a fat-building mode.” —Dr. Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition
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We can ramp up the intensity in our exercise to stimulate more muscle growth, but without sleep, we won’t be able to use the nutritional building blocks from food to restore our worn-out bodies.
How our body clock works
All living organisms that exist today, including humans, have evolved millions of years ago all thanks to the Sun as the primary driving force. The heat from the Sun is free energy that evaporates ocean water which then accumulates as clouds. Rain falls down on the Earth driving evolution, natural selection and life on our planet. Whether we like it or not, our biology has evolved around this natural phenomenon. We operate on a cycle of light and dark. Our body’s master clock called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus located in our hypothalamus is responsible for receiving external cues such as brightness and darkness. It synchronizes each cells’ daily rhythms, timing and function. For example, the digestive process slows down when we start falling asleep and speeds back up when we wake up. A woman’s monthly period is governed by the same circadian rhythms which helps her body count the days in a month and regulate her menstrual cycle. This is the reason why we must be wise in how and when we expose ourselves to light and darkness.
Here are some tips to use light and dark for better sleep:
  • Increase exposure to daylight. According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, the body responds to different wavelengths of light. The suns rays, for example, not only provide vitamin D, but also emit a longer wavelength in the blue light spectrum. This wavelength helps set our internal clock because it suppresses the sleep hormone, melatonin, during the day and increases it during the night when it’s dark.
  • Use red light and flashlight’s at night as wavelengths in this spectrum have negligible impact on melatonin suppression. Using your phone’s nighttime mode may also help increase sleepiness.
  • Put black tape on all the small standby lightbulbs in your bedroom. According to Biohacker Dave Asprey, even the tiniest light can affect melatonin levels during sleep. Total darkness is needed for optimal melatonin secretion when you’re asleep.
  • Unplug all electronic devices such as your TV and computer 30 minutes before bed. This will help your mind slow down and set the mood for bed.
  • Cover your windows completely to prevent ambient light outside entering your bedroom.
  • Switch your phone into airplane mode and flip it upside down on before you sleep.
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All living organisms that exist today, including humans, have evolved millions of years ago all thanks to the Sun as the primary driving force.
“We are a supremely arrogant species because we think we can override the millions of years of evolution that created these rhythms within us.” —Russel Foster, professor at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at Oxford University
Food for better sleep
Improving your circadian rhythm and melatonin cycle aren’t the only tricks to help you get a good night’s sleep. The nutrients in your food can also affect how efficiently your body can use energy during the day and how fast it can shut down during the night. Food can therefore govern how healthfully you can sleep.
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Green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale are chock full of calcium and magnesium. They also contain a lot of fiber that may fight blood sugar rushes at night which block the production of melatonin.
Magnesium and potassium for example are key minerals that help you relax and wind down when it’s needed. A study in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine found that when the body’s magnesium levels are too low, it becomes harder to stay asleep. Also, a dietary survey in the US claims that 80% of Americans are simply not getting enough magnesium from their diet. Potassium, on the other hand, works synergistically with magnesium to improve sleep quality. It’s generally recommended that we take five times more potassium than sodium in our diet but unfortunately, it’s the reverse. Processed foods are a common go-to nowadays and that leads most people consuming way too much salts in their diets and increasing the risk for hypertension. A good ratio of potassium to sodium is 5:1.
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Walnuts and almonds. My favorites!
Here are some foods that are rich in magnesium and potassium that you can eat throughout the day and at night:
  • Nuts such as almonds and walnuts are rich in tryptophan, the amino acid responsible for the production of serotonin and melatonin. These nuts are also great sources of magnesium which may help you relax and fall asleep faster.
  • Green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale are chock full of calcium and magnesium. They also contain a lot of fiber that may fight blood sugar rushes at night which block the production of melatonin.
  • Turkey. Not only rich in protein, turkey is also rich in tryptophan, riboflavin, phosphorus and selenium which are all important for a healthy metabolism.
  • Chamomile and peppermint tea are rich in glycine, which relaxes nerves and muscles and acts as a natural sedative.
  • Dark chocolate. Preferably 85% cacao and above. Although cacao has a little caffeine, it is rich in magnesium and antioxidants that helps you fall asleep slowly and steadily. I would recommend eating dark chocolate no less than 8 hours before your bedtime. Its caffeine can help you stay alert during the day but it’s magnesium can help you fall asleep at night, helping to create an optimal body clock. Yay for chocolate!
  • Fruits. Not all fruits are created equal. Some are better than the others and when it comes to sleep, bananas, kiwis, cherries are the best. According to Dr. Josh Axe, these fruits contain a lot of melatonin themselves that can help you get drowsy. Fruits also have a fair amount of carbohydrates which are necessary for a good night’s sleep especially when beaten down after an intense workout.
  • Raw honey. The carb contents in honey goes directly into the liver which is stored as liver glycogen. Liver glycogen must be refueled in order to get that deep quality sleep.
  • MCT oil and intermittent fasting. Many sleep researchers including Biohacker Dave Asprey claims that during deep sleep, our brains’ waste drainage system called the glymphatic system is heavily at work. It clears out Amyloid-beta (an Alzheimers disease causing waste material) through the processes of authophagy. Autophagy works well when our brain’s mitochondria works well and one way to boost our mitochondria’s fitness is by supplying them with ketones. And you guessed it right. The best way to increase ketones in our bodies is through intermittent fasting and taking medium chain triglycerides or MCT oil.
“Life is too short to wake up tired.” —Dave Asprey
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Drawing the line
It’s an instant gratification world we live in. It’s almost automatic that today’s generation, including myself, can get a little too entitled. We no longer have to cook our own meals when we’re hungry. Just call a delivery service and food will come knocking at our doors. But wanting to do more can also be a sign of entitlement. Operating in a consumer culture, a lot of us have been indoctrinated that it is just right to accept and affirm everything that is thrown at us. We therefore do more in an effort to be more— as if our worth is dependent on our work. We abuse our bodies like machines, trying to keep up with our 24/7, technologically advanced society. We are unaware that our biology is the same biology that our Paleolithic ancestors had in their primitive environment. To fully attain balance and happiness, we should also learn the subtle art of saying “no”. But how do we draw the line? It is simple. The act of drawing the line is synonymous to choosing our values and standing by them—even when the going gets tough. Our peers may disagree and we can raise many eyebrows but when we are committed to our values, we actually gain more freedom. We end up untangling ourselves in directionless pursuits.
Ask yourself what are the things that are most important to you? In my opinion, it is simply happiness and health because without these two, no achievement or wealth in this world will feel enough.
There is nothing wrong with pursuing a multitude of things, money or experiences. But what makes life worthwhile is realizing a deeper meaning to our pursuits. They say that pain can be a good teacher and it can teach us the meaning of life. But without rest, we don’t recover from pain and this stunts our growth. Similarly, when we beat ourselves up with our training it is common sense that we eat well to rebuild our bodies. But what many fail to accept is that out bodies only initiate the process of recovery and regeneration once we are fully and deeply asleep.
“Breadth of experience is necessary when you are young. But depth is where the gold is buried.” —Mark Manson
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Eat well, move well, recover well. This is the road to wellness.

Richard Liao

American Council on Exercise Certified Personal Trainer, CrossFit L1 Trainer, Precision Nutrition L1 Coach

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