Beyond fasting: Syncing my circadian clocks for one month

If this isn’t your first rodeo on this blog, you know I’m a big fan of fasting for gut health. Regular fasting gives your digestion a break and gives your organs of digestion time to re-synthesize and store digestive enzymes.

Regular fasting also improves your gut motility.  Motility patterns during the fed period are completely different from the fasting period.  Fed motility patterns are more about mixing, churning, and grinding to promote digestion and absorption while fasting patterns are more about moving things along.

Unfortunately, people freak out about the word fasting.  For some reason they associate the term fasting with starving.  It doesn’t help that nearly every Registered Dietitian recommends small, regular meals and advises against fasting.

It’s as if they don’t realize that they fast every night when they sleep.  Or that they only need to hold off on eating for 4 more hours to be practicing a form of fasting that will benefit them.

Yup, that’s right, you don’t need to go days without food to get the benefits of fasting.  There are benefits to fasting for just 12 hours daily.    You may think you’re already doing this, but a recent study found that more than 50% of the population in India spread their eating over a greater than 15 hour window(1).  It’s hard to imagine Americans are any better.

There are many health benefits to fasting.  This includes:

  • Improved insulin and blood glucose levels
  • Reduced oxidative stress
  • Lower inflammation
  • Removal of abnormal cells and cell components
  • Improved energy metabolism
  • Enhanced brain function
  • Improved digestion
  • Improved immunity
  • Enhanced growth hormone secretion

But the thing is, the benefits of fasting probably aren’t fasting specific.  Most of these benefits probably have more to do with something called circadian rhythmicity, something that fasting helps regulate.

Circadian rhythms

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In my last blog I covered the concept of circadian clocks.  The basic concept of circadian clocks is that the organs of the body keep time.  Cells throughout the body contain clock genes, or oscillators, that help set up daily variations in organ function that ultimately lead to periods of optimal functional output followed by periods of recovery. For more on this check out my last blog here.

The purpose of these clocks is to adjust your physiology to the environment.  Certain factors within the environment, called zeitgebers or time givers, clue your body to environmental patterns and adjust hormone output to increase your chances for success, at least from an evolutionary perspective.  Zeitgebers don’t care if you have abs.

You’re probably familiar with the role light plays in regulating the sleep-wake cycle.  That’s because exposure to blue light is a zeitgeber that communicates the time of day to the pineal gland.  The pineal gland begins secreting melatonin in the absence of blue light to tell your brain it’s time to sleep.  This helps set the master clock.

Feeding and fasting cycles are also a zeitgeber.  Physical activity is as well.  These zeitgebers help set your peripheral clocks, timekeepers for organs other than your brain such as the gut, liver, adrenals, kidneys, and so on.  If you look at this entire concept of circadian rhythms, a general concept emerges.  In humans, the ideal situation is that we are alert, eating, and physically active during the day and sleeping, fasting, and resting during the night.

As you can imagine, this requires a rhythm for every organ system in the body.  Just on the surface you can see this involves the adrenals and thyroid to keep us alert and active, the thyroid, liver, pancreas and gut to regulate digestion and metabolism, and adipose and muscle tissue to store and use energy.  And given that the brain contains the master clock, it regulates the whole thing.

The consequences of disrupted clocks are pretty obvious.  Dysregulated eating and sleeping patterns, hormonal imbalance, blood glucose problems, poorly functioning immune system, fatigue, infertility, poor digestion and motility, and mood/anxiety disorders.

While I don’t really have any of those problems, I’m always interested in improving my health and well-being.  So, I got to work and decided I’d block blue light at the appropriate times, get exposed to it at the appropriate times, and manipulate the other zeitgebers to see if I saw any changes.  I most certainly did.

N=1 experiment time

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Going in to this I really didn’t think there was going to be any discernible change in the way I felt.  A few years ago I had sleep, fatigue, digestion, and muscular issues that have more or less resolved thanks to tweaks to my lifestyle.  While there were a couple of holdover issues, I assumed they were merely consequences of aging.

First and foremost, I’d get up every morning at 3:30am +/-10 mins  to pee.  Seems pretty innocuous and a normal part of aging, or so I’ve been told.  While this didn’t really bother me, sometimes it’s not so easy to fall back asleep which is incredibly annoying.

Second, I’ve always had some level of orthostatic hypotension, particularly in the morning.  My blood pressure has always been somewhat low so it’s not really concerning to me, it definitely beats hypertension.

However, a physician client of mine told me that I probably have some mild form of Ehler-Danlos syndrome which presents with ortho.  I wouldn’t say I’m dangerously hypermobile, but I am prone to aversion sprains in my ankle, my skin is stretchier than most, and I can touch my thumb to my forearm.

This also makes me more prone to dysautonomia, HPA axis dysregulation, or adrenal fatigue depending on what you want to call it.  This issue is ultimately under circadian regulation.

Finally, over the course of the last few years I’ve tried to take up running but haven’t been able to.  Whenever I begin running, my calves begin to cramp and I’d always get a mild pull in my right calf within the first quarter mile.  My calves have always been prone to tightness and cramping, so I just chalked it up to the aging process.

This cramping issue is not reserved for my calves either.  Whenever I’m under a large calorie restriction my abs cramp up when I sit up or do planks.  Another peculiar issue I had was that on Mondays following my usual craft beer-laden weekends, I’d often get widespread mini-cramps in my quadriceps during my strength workouts.  It’s like a shotgun effect dispersed throughout my quads, almost like pins and needles.

I found that taking a lipid-based thiamine supplement prevented the quad issues but not the calf issues.  But, as I soon found out, I was simply treating a symptom rather than the actual issue.

Oddly enough, while most of these things could certainly fall under problems of aging, circadian disruption is also a consequence of aging.  And when it all comes down to it, these problems are affected by something that has a circadian rhythm: electrolyte balance.

Manipulating light exposure

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I’ve known about the effects of blue light at night for a while.  Despite understanding how important it was, I didn’t feel I had an issue with sleeping.  Sure, occasionally I’d wake up to pee at 3:30am and not fall back asleep, but I didn’t really feel sluggish on those days.

When I started my little experiment, I was only going to manipulate my light exposure.  Like so many others, I was being entirely too myopic in my approach.  For the first week I simply wore blue-blocking glasses 2 hours before I went to bed.  Since I’m all about fashion, I went with the trendy $7 pair.

During the first week I did see some mild improvement.  I was falling asleep faster and when I was waking up to take a whiz I was able to fall right back asleep.  In fact, I felt downright groggy when I went to bed, when I woke to pee, and even when I woke up in the morning.  Normally I just shot right out of bed , now I was feeling a touch groggy when I woke.

Towards the end of this first week I also had 2 nights where I didn’t get up to take my regular 3:30am pee.  Oddly enough, I was still waking at 3:30am, but I was able to fall right back asleep and not pee, save for one night.

Fortunately for me I wasn’t entirely wed to a specific protocol.  My initial plan to simply manipulate light exposure at night gave way to a more rigorous plan that came out through my research for this blog.  This would involve a lot more than wearing blue-light reducing glasses at night.

Tweaking the other zeitgebers

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As I dug in to the literature, I found a ton of fascinating biological phenomena that accompany circadian entrainment, aka syncing your clocks.  These phenomena give substantial clues as to how to best sync up your clocks.  I found that I would need to tweak my diet composition and timing as well as my physical activity.

When I began tweaking the diet and exercise side of things during the second week, progress happened rapidly.  The 3:30am peeing resolved within a day or 2 as did the waking at 3:30am.  By the end of the second week, my sleep had improved even though I didn’t think it was really that bad in the first place.

Moving in to the 3rd week, I decided to really test the pee thing.  For 3 consecutive nights I drank 16oz of water immediately before bed and still no wakey.  I had previously cut out drinking water past 5pm to manage this issue and I still woke to pee.  Since this happened at 3:30am every single time, it made sense that this issue was circadian in nature.

I also noticed in the 3rd week that all muscle cramping was absent.  I’ve always been prone to cramping as I’m a salty sweater.  This issue is exacerbated when I restrict calories, and I was losing weight during the first 3 weeks of this N=1 trial.  Not a lot, only 5lbs, but this has been an issue going back to high school sports.

Somewhere around the beginning of week 4 I also noticed a change in bowel habits.  I’ve always been a “regular” guy going 2-3 times a day, but it all happened in the morning.  Sometimes pre-coffee followed by 2 post-coffee dumps.

During this trial, I got constipated in week 2, loose stools in week 3, and back to regular now, but different from before.  Now it seems to be spread throughout the day either in anticipation of or following a meal rather than all morning centered around my coffee.

I’d bet a large sum of money that this change in bowel habits also has something to do with electrolyte balance.  Even more importantly, I believe there is going to be a huge change in my microbiome.  I’ll be testing this on Friday and should have the results in a couple of months.

Finally, during the 4th week I decided I was going to test the calves.  Running is a simple form of exercise that I can get done in a very short timeframe, which is why it sucked I couldn’t do it.  No need to drive to the gym, get on the elliptical, shower afterwards, and drive home.  Doing 30 minutes on the elliptical is a 90 minute time investment.  Running from my house for 30 minutes and showering is literally half that.

I ran for a total of 2 miles each time with no calf cramping.  My feet hurt like a mofo, but that’s a completely separate issue.  At this point I was pretty convinced that what I was doing was having a fairly profound effect on my body.

As of now I’ve just finished the first 4 weeks of doing this protocol and I have every intention of continuing.  I haven’t had an episode of orthostatic hypotension for a while and my Friday to Monday weight difference has been halved from 8lbs to 4lbs.  This is all water weight, obviously, which further leads me to believe this was an electrolyte balance thing.


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Honestly, while I knew the circadian stuff was important, I felt pretty good and didn’t expect any significant changes.  To my surprise, I think it did some pretty amazing things.

As mentioned above, I’ve always been a proponent of fasting.  This little trial showed me that I was definitely doing it wrong.  My prior focus with regard to fasting was “How long per day” where it should have been “when” and how that fits in to physical activity and light exposure.  In fact, the interaction of all 3 explained the 3:30 pee wake-ups and manipulating them resolved the issue.

My one misgiving about this is that I didn’t address all of the zeitgebers at the beginning.  Mice respond in a few days in a lab if you control all of the zeitgebers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same held for humans.  I must admit, though, that working one variable first is probably the best practice.

I was a bit surprised with the change in bowel habits.  My only guess here is that there was some changes in the make up of my microbiome.  While my diet didn’t change, when food was going through it changed.

With the changes in sleep and physical activity, the timing of the environmental landscape in my gut changed in comparison to when I ate.  In other words, I reset my microbial clock by manipulating what was going through my gut digestively, hormonally, and as food.  This could be an important yet underappreciated factor in improving gut health.

Overall I think this circadian stuff is muy importante.  In my next blog I’ll cover the importance of the circadian stuff for gut health.  But it’s not going to be a written blog.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the process of creating a program for syncing your clocks and I want to give the layout a test run.  This next blog will be a powerpoint video to test the layout.  After that, I plan on releasing a beta of the circadian syncing program at a reduced cost for 10 people in my facebook group.  If you’re not a member, request to join here.  Stay tuned, the next one connects the dots for some people who are having problems resolving gut issues, hormonal issues, immune dysfunction, and all that fun stuff.

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