Whether or not you’re conscious of it, your body follows a natural daily pattern, influenced by the sunrise and sunset. This internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, is synced with your body, brain, and behavioral changes.
Recent research shows connections between circadian rhythm and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Disrupting this natural system has the potential to increase symptoms. Finding and maintaining your daily rhythm can help prevent chronic disease and help manage Crohn’s and colitis.
What is Circadian Rhythm?
In the 24 hours that make up a day, there are light and dark cycles due to the rotation of the earth. Plants, animals, and humans synchronize with this daily pattern in order to adapt to the environment and maintain homoeostasis.
Homeostasis is a healthy state that’s maintained by your body constantly adjusting. For instance, natural functions such as sweating keep your body temperature within a normal range.
The hypothalamus region of your brain is associated with the autonomic nervous system. This is what controls your unconscious body functions such as your heart rate, digestion, and breathing. Tens of thousands of brain cells make up the suprachiasmatic nucleus which is a region within the hypothalamus.
The suprachiasmatic nucleus sets your body’s circadian rhythm. It processes signals from your eyes (light and dark) to maintain your biological clock. This influences your behavior and body responses including energy levels and metabolism.
What Impacts Circadian Rhythm?
There’s a physiological reason why we tend to get tired around the same time every night and wake up around the same time in the morning.
Your body is naturally designed to sleep at night. But in today’s modern world with electricity, computers, and phones, your body is easily “tricked” into thinking it’s daytime during the later hours. Life situations such as working the night shift, eating late, sleeping in late, exercising late, irregular hours of eating and sleeping, and jet lag, can also effect your rhythm.
Circadian rhythm, metabolism, and nutrition are all closely linked. One study showed that timed meals could help “reset” the internal clock by means of managing blood glucose. So eating at certain times can play a role in synchronizing circadian rhythm disorders for shift workers and travelers.
Circadian Rhythm and Sleep
Sleep schedules are individual — you may function better in the morning or get into your grove at night. Regardless of your instinctive sleep pattern, one thing you require to be productive, healthy, and thriving is a consistently timed good night’s sleep.
Sleep.org explains that for most humans, the ideal sleep cycle includes seven to nine hours of sleep, ideally at night, followed by 15 to 17 hours of wakefulness.
This natural sleep-wake cycle is regulated by chemicals and hormones that change throughout the day. Adenosine for example is a chemical that accumulates in your body, the longer you are awake, until it’s time to sleep. But when you drink coffee, you block adenosine from being absorbed by your brain.
Melatonin is a hormone that starts to rise in the late afternoon and continues through the night. Then it naturally falls in the early morning as your body prepares to wake up. However, bright lights or screens in the evening may disrupt melatonin production, making it more difficult to sleep.
Circadian Rhythm and Digestive Health
Research shows that in the digestive system there are a broad range of functions that reflect the circadian rhythm. Meaning, your body is better equipped to eat at certain times of the day.
–Mouth: there is a greater volume of saliva (which helps you digest) produced during the day than the night. Microbiota diversity varies and is influenced by meal times.
–Gastric movement: digestion takes longer in the evening than in the morning.
–Chemicals: melatonin and serotonin play a role in gastrointestinal movement. They are thought to communicate with healthy gut bacteria. This can also impact the permeability and health of the gut. Digestive enzymes are different during the day and night.
–Immunity: your gut bacteria change according to type of food, whether you are eating or fasting, and what time of day it is. These impact the body as well as circadian rhythm.
Circadian Rhythm and IBD
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) includes ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease (CD). Disrupting your body’s natural rhythms has shown to cause problems such as change gut mobility (how fast or slow you digest) and changes in the microbiota composition.
Studies have demonstrated that sleep interruptions are involved with the development of IBD. In fact, melatonin, known as the sleep hormone, plays an important role in regulating inflammation, immunity, and the antioxidant system. All of which are related to IBD.
Recent research has suggested a link between stressors that influence circadian rhythms and digestive disorders. Disruption of the circadian rhythm can increase the activity of the gut immune system and the release of inflammatory factors.
With long term sleep loss, there are elevations in inflammatory cytokines. Implying that disturbed sleep and chronic inflammation in IBD can form a self-perpetuating feedback loop — chronic inflammation of IBD can worsen sleep and decreased sleep can make inflammation worse.
How to Regulate Your Circadian Rhythm
Creating a routine of your daily habits, including sleep, exercise, social interaction, and eating times, have been shown to impact circadian rhythm.
Even if you’re used to staying awake watching Netflix until two in the morning, or if you’ve been on an erratic eater due to a life crisis as of late, the good news is that you can reset your body clock.
Get Some Sun
Exposing yourself to sunlight (even on grey days) can help regulate your circadian rhythm. A small study featured by WebMD showed that a week of winter camping, sans smart phones, reset the participants’ body clocks to be more in tune with nature’s light and dark cycle. As a result, the participants slept longer.
Their saliva samples showed that melatonin, the sleep hormone, shifted to rise at sunset, when compared with a typical week at home.
Set Up a Sleep Schedule
UC Berkeley neuroscientist and author of Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker’s top tips for improving sleep include:
-Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even after a night out or movie binge.
-Keeping your bedroom cool (about 65 °F/18°C).
-At least an hour before bedtime, dim the lights and turn off all screens. Blackout curtains are also helpful.
-If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing, such as reading or gentle stretching, until you feel sleepy again. Then go back to bed.
-Avoid caffeine after 1 p.m. and don’t go to bed tipsy. Alcohol blocks your REM sleep, an important part of the sleep cycle.
Eat with the Light of the Day (When Possible)
Some health experts recommend eating within a shorter time window of time for the day. However, if you have IBD, it’s very important to focus on eating more calories in general. Particularly if your weight is low or if you are dropping weight. Make sure to speak to your doctor before considering this.
If you eat a balanced meal (containing healthy carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) every few hours, your blood sugar, insulin, and cortisol will be better regulated. Too much of the stress hormone cortisol can impact sleep and make IBD symptoms worse.
Insulin is the hormone that regulates blood sugar. So when you eat something sweet, your blood sugar increases and insulin is what shuttles the sugar into our cells in order to be used as energy. Too much insulin over time has been associated with diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, and high inflammation.
Keep a Consistent Schedule
Getting ready in the morning and having a regular routine is essential for self esteem, productivity, and circadian rhythm regulating.
-Aim to wake up and start your day around the same time.
-Try creating a realistic to-do list in the morning. When you create a bit of urgency, you’ll be more likely to get things done.
-Take breaks and eat meals around the same time and in the same setting (at the kitchen table, backyard, etc).
-Make sure to include fun and self-care such as taking some quiet time every day.
-Wind down and go to sleep at a consistent daily time.
Nourish with Good Nutrition
When you wake up, drink water and aim to eat within an hour. Focus on a protein-rich breakfast. Eat every few hours and include a healthy source of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Consuming sugar, caffeine, and alcohol before bed can interfere with your natural rhythm. If possible, try to give yourself about two to three hours between your last meal and bedtime. This can help you fall asleep easier (as long as you’re not hungry) and improve digestion.
Nori Health is a digital coach who is there to support you in discovering and changing the lifestyle factors that impact your well being. She’s there for you 24/7 to listen to what you’re going through and provide tips to help you improve your life. She can help you find the foundation you need.
This article has been written by Lisa Booth, registered dietitian and nutritionist, and co-founder of Nori Health. Content is based on her professional knowledge, and our collection of 100+ scientific research study papers.