Living in modern society has it’s benefits. While our ancestors and fellow modern humans living in 3rd world conditions have to deal with a range of deadly pathogens, our modern healthcare system is well-equipped to deal with things of that nature. While both tend to die of these infections, we stick around because we have methods of successfully treating them.
While our healthcare system is fantastic at dealing with issues like this, that doesn’t mean we don’t have 1st world problems. More than 50% of the population has at least 1 chronic disease, and treating these diseases represents more than 80% of our healthcare costs. To say we are ill-equipped at dealing with chronic disease is an understatement.
It’s universally agreed upon that most of the things that drive our chronic disease burden are driven by lifestyle. Most people buy in to the fact that smoking, obesity, inactivity, and excessive alcohol consumption are all self-inflicted wounds that leave lasting marks on our physiology. They lead to things like Cancer, Cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and chronic respiratory illnesses.
But what about chronic issues that fall outside the scope of those diseases? Once upon a moon, things like irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder were all chalked up to psychosomatic symptoms largely dreamed up by the afflicted. It’s as if anything that doesn’t fit in to one of our pre-determined categories doesn’t exist.
As such, people with these issues are often dismissed entirely. As a result, they venture in to the highly unregulated and scarcely researched world of supplements, homeopathic medicine, and restrictive diets. It’s not that some of these things aren’t useful, a lot of the time they can be, at the very least for symptom management.
But I’ve always been of the opinion that, outside of correcting nutritional deficiencies, managing symptoms with supplements isn’t vastly different than managing them with pharmaceutical drugs. Neither corrects the underlying issue, particularly if your improvements are wholly dependent on continually taking any medicine, pharmaceutical or supplement. If the underlying cause is lifestyle related, why isn’t the solution correcting one’s lifestyle?
Circadian rhythms: A new lifestyle factor with big implications
Maybe it’s the circles I run in, but it seems as though a large number of people seem to be experiencing issues with their gut, their adrenals, their sleep, or all of the above. They go to their doctor, they run some tests, the tests all come back normal, and they’re left without an answer. It’s easy to blame the doctors, we assume they should have all the answers.
But it’s not really their fault, these issues seem to be becoming more prevalent now and most of them went to school at a time where lifestyle wasn’t addressed in their schooling. Maybe a semester of nutrition, but that’s about it.
One major factor that seems to be gaining some steam in recent years, particularly with gut health, is circadian rhythms. Circadian disruption is associated with a number of gut disorders including GERD and IBS, and drives dysbiosis of the microbiome and a loss of diversity. I’ve covered this many times on this site, both in blogs as well as a video presentation. Check those bad boys out is you want to find out how circadian rhythms impact the gut.
The funny thing is, sleep, gut health, and adrenal output are all heavily regulated by circadian rhythms. It’s by no means a stretch that dysfunction in any of these areas is due to disruption of circadian rhythms.
Unfortunately, this is often ignored and attention shifts directly to supplements people can take to alter their cortisol levels, prevent leaky gut, or induce sleep. This isn’t to say that everyone who experiences these problems will find a final solution by tweaking their circadian rhythms. But a sizeable chunk of people who are doing everything wrong will more than likely see dramatic improvements by correcting a few small issues with their lifestyle.
I liken it to asking a mechanic why your car isn’t running properly, without telling him that you’re driving it in the ocean. A car isn’t meant to be driven in the ocean, so until you stop doing that a mechanic is of little use. Maybe you stop driving it in the ocean and it runs fine, maybe it still needs fixing. Either way, until you stop driving it in the ocean, the mechanic can’t tell you what’s wrong with your car.
The point is, in order to determine if you have a real issue that needs addressing outside of your lifestyle, you must put your body in to a state that optimizes these factors. So let’s take a look at what that is and some things that can help you do just that.
Establishing a robust circadian rhythm
Circadian rhythms are very interesting in that they’re essentially a way to optimize our physiology to interact with the environment we’re in. In a way, they are solution to the puzzle that is life. Back in the day, when you couldn’t just lay on the couch and order Domino’s, it optimized things like motivation, arousal, immune function, digestion, and physical activity to help you find food and survive.
There are physiological remnants of how these processes are regulated, even today. When we eat, we experience mild levels of inflammation, intestinal permeability, and elevations in core body temperature. Likely a way to prepare the immune system for a pathogen you may co-ingest with your food. These things are hardwired in to us.
Since humans are diurnal creatures, these processes tend to be increased during the day when we’d normally be actively searching for food. Of course, our risk of injury and infection is greatest during these times so having everything on high alert is ideal. Fortunately, the cost of these things is greatly reduced by the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol and ghrelin, which are also higher during the day.
Of course, there are pleiotropic effects of these hormones. Both stimulate motivation and arousal, but have negative effects on sleep. Fortunately, the higher they peak during the day, the lower they drop at night. This coupled with the release of melatonin and a drop in core body temperature help induce sleep.
The thing about ghrelin, cortisol, and melatonin is that they’re directly regulated by circadian rhythms and all function to communicate time between the environment and a slew of tissues in the body. Cortisol increases in the transotion from dim to bright light in the morning and melatonin increases in the absence of light, particularly blue light. Interestingly, melatonin inhibits cortisol secretion, providing an additional brake to help induce sleep by causing a divergence in these 2 hormones. Ghrelin, on the other hand, is increased during fasting, another powerful factor that regulates circadian rhythms.
In addition to light and the feeding/fasting cycle, physical activity as well as room and body temperature are also big factors that help regulate circadian rhythms. The more of these factors you can use to drive a robust circadian rhythm, the more you should see improvements in sleep as well as adrenal and gut health. By doing so, you’re providing more information to optimize your physiology, and removing any confusion that could disrupt function by dampening circadian output.
Feeding, physical activity, body temperature, and oxidative stress
When we look at physical activity and the feeding/fasting cycle, we can get an idea as to how these 2 zeitgebers feed in to the circadian clock. For one, doing both leads to an obvious increase in body temperature. Second, and equally as important, both lead to an increase in free radical production, and thus, oxidative stress.
These are 2 important considerations for obvious reasons. While body temperature is regulated by the circadian clock, doing things that increase body temperature at a time when it’s supposed to be falling can have a negative effect on the clock. It sends the wrong message.
A recent study found that neurons that induce sleep are activated by a drop in body temperature. Increasing body temperature by increasing metabolism before bed, whether it be through physical activity or eating a late night snack, may have a negative impact on your ability to sleep.
Doing either of these things late at night may also confuse your clocks by increasing oxidative stress leading to inflammation. Inflammation can also have a negative impact on sleep, and lest we not forget that one of the hallmarks of inflammation is that it increases temperature. Furthermore, creating oxidative stress while you sleep by having a large undigested meal or snack sitting in your gut may prevent full recovery from your day, which takes place while you sleep.
Optimal recovery from the days oxidative stress is heavily dependent on melatonin signaling, which in and of itself is regulated by appropriate day/night light exposure. The importance of melatonin for resolving oxidative stress is due to its ability to directly reduce free radicals and stimulate the activity of glutathione and superoxide dismutase, 2 of your master endogenous antioxidants. But is melatonin that has donated an electron to a free radical able to fulfill it’s role in inducing sleep? That’s a good question.
No matter how you cut it, the human body evolved under a pretty consistent day/night cycle and the scarcity of food and the need to be physically active to find it left an indelible mark on our physiology. These very things play a huge role in adjusting our circadian rhythms of cortisol, ghrelin, and melatonin which modulate things like arousal state, mood, motivation, gut and blood brain barrier permeability, and inflammation.
Providing the proper cues at the right time sets our operating system on the right track. Or, put another way, puts our car back on the road so our mechanic can diagnose what’s wrong with it.
There are a number of checks and balances the body uses to adjust physiology. These checks and balances are integrated in to the circadian clock and can function as both inputs and outputs. Cortisol, melatonin, and ghrelin are 3 hormones in the body that are not only outputs of circadian clocks, but also function as inputs to clocks throughout the body. When the circadian rhythm of these hormones is thrown off, your entire physiology is thrown off.
There is no cheat code for this stuff. Supplemental melatonin, adaptogens, and leaky gut fixes like glutamine aren’t the solution to your problems, they’re simply masking it. And if you don’t address problems related to sleep, gut, and adrenal problems without first exposing your body to the environment that these systems thrive in, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an actual solution.
If I could give 3 pieces of advice for people looking to optimize their circadian rhythms, they would be:
- Make a circadian schedule and stick to it >90% of the time, chaos is bad for physiology, particularly the anticipatory portion of digestion
- Begin with setting your light exposure schedule, but don’t stop there because it’s insufficient on it’s own
- Make a goal of eating 2 or 3 times a day, no more
Implementing these 3 things is a great starting point for getting your car out of the ocean and back on the road. The vast majority of people who do these things will see significant improvements in gut, adrenal, and sleep issues that they may be experiencing. In addition to feeling better, you’ll get yourself to an adequate baseline to begin pecking away at resolving deeper problems in these systems.
Need help optimizing your circadian rhythms? I developed a program I call the Circadian Retraining Program to help people do just that. The program teaches people how to fix their rhythms, measure their progress, and make tweaks to optimize their health. You can check it out here.