The Biological Clock

Blog, Nutrition

The Biological Clock

The biological clock is an innate mechanism which regulates many functions in the human body. The most commonly known is the Circadian Rhythm of 24 hours which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, and is naturally in tune with the light-dark cycle of one rotation of Earth on its axis, which we call a day.

Some functions that work on a Circadian Rhythm are blood cell renewal and detoxification performed by the liver during sleep between 1 am and 3 am, and the spleen, which is crucial for immunity, is active around 2 am. These can only occur if the sleep-wake cycle is balanced properly. The Biological Clock has functions that are weekly, monthly, seasonal, annual and longer periods which we associate with the different stages of life.

We tend to think of a woman’s biological clock (ability to conceive) but men too have a biological clock, with diminishing hormones as they age. Taking measures to regulate one’s clock has both short and long-term beneficial effects from energy levels, immunity, detoxification, hunger and satiety, weight management, hormonal balance, and beyond to the development or prevention of disease, and the ageing process.

It all starts with the circadian rhythm, and getting that right underpins the rest. One key factor is having sufficient serotonin which is converted to melatonin in response to darkness and plays a role in maintaining sleep; it then diminishes in response to light (sunrise) which helps us to wake up.

Having sufficient serotonin has immediate health benefits and a deficiency is associated with depression and depressed immune function, making it crucially important for the current situation we’re all in with lock-down. Serotonin helps you to wake up, and is associated with a happy mood, social behaviour, feelings of safety, memory, libido, cognitive ability, appetite and digestion.

Effects of a disrupted circadian rhythm can include mood swings, depression, blood sugar imbalance, weight gain, heart disease, and even the development of cancer (deficient melatonin has been linked to certain cancers, which may be due to other biological functions that also follow a circadian rhythm being disrupted through insufficient sleep).

Tips to regulate your Circadian Rhythm while on lock-down:

Top priority is having a routine of waking and sleeping. You should aim to go to bed and get up at the same time everyday. During lock-down this can be difficult but it should be easy to establish going to sleep between 9pm and midnight and waking between 5 am and 8 am.

Aim for it to be as close to your normal life outside of lock-down as possible and work on a gradient approach if you are currently way-off your norm. Monitor improvement by assessing your energy levels and productivity during the day. We all have a unique rhythm that falls somewhere in this time frame (except those who work shifts which is a whole different ball-game).

Eat at regular times everyday and choose foods that give nourishment while avoiding those that use up your nutrients (processed foods).

Ensure to include foods in your diet that supply the amino acid Tryptophan which is vital to the synthesis of melatonin: spinach, spirulina, crab, prawns, lobster, free range eggs, wild caught fish like salmon, halibut and cod; free range poultry (chicken, duck, pheasant, turkey, goose), rabbit, wholegrains like oats, corn, brown rice and quinoa; potatoes, bananas, grass fed beef/lamb, legumes like chickpeas and kidney beans; sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and raw nuts.

Day time exposure to natural light and daily exercise both help to regulate the circadian rhythm and rebalance production of melatonin thereby promoting good sleep and wakefulness during the day. Open all the curtains/blinds as soon as you are up to maximise light exposure while indoors.

Exercise between midday and 6 pm; muscles also follow a rhythm and the results of your efforts are likely to be quite different depending upon the time of day you exercise. Research indicates more favourable results from daytime exercise as opposed to evening/night-time workouts.

Avoid naps during the day unless you have been advised otherwise by a health professional.

Avoiding blue light (computer/tv/tablet/mobile screens) after sunset is advised because blue light suppresses melatonin synthesis making it more difficult to fall asleep.

Close the curtains/blinds and dim the lights in the home after sunset to encourage the conversion of serotonin to melatonin and go to bed when you’re sleepy.

Minimize intake of alcohol. Caffeine and tobacco because they can deplete melatonin levels in the body.

If you are waking around 3 am and not able to get back to sleep, eat leafy greens throughout the day to boost magnesium levels, and try a bedtime snack such as olives, avocado or nuts to help stabilise blood sugar levels and maintain sleep.

By Lisa Borg

Lisa is a qualified Nutritional Therapist. She has been practising nutrition for 16 years across a broad spectrum of health conditions. She has a special interest in Rosacea, and her research, together with experience, led to the writing of her thesis entitled “The Nutritional Management of Rosacea”.