It's 1AM and you're awake, waiting for the new episode of Grey's Anatomy to stream. You take a walk around the kitchen, fiddle with a few cabinets, open and close the fridge door hoping to find something that will appeal to your senses. You tell yourself you're not hungry but the more you try to fight it, the worse it gets.
You finally give in and one hour later find yourself watching Derek Shepherd perform another seamless neurosurgery while chomping on cream and onion chips from a pack. And all is well in paradise. Until you start to feel uneasy, bloated, uncomfortable and find your cravings to be much stronger than they were before.
What you don't realise is that these instances of late-night munching can re-wire your body's rhythm. And before you dismiss this as a new fad or scientific discovery, let me tell you that the concept of the body's rhythm or cycles goes back almost a thousand years. Like there are cycles in season, the economy, animals and plants, your body too follows the same pattern. The body experiences different levels of alertness and sleepiness through the day and it's these natural cycles that help balance the two. The most commonly known cycles are the three eight-hour cycles:
4 AM - 12 PM Elimination
12 PM - 8 PM Appropriation
8 PM - 4 AM Assimilation
The cycles as defined by Ayurveda are slightly different than the ones mentioned above. But we'll come to those in a bit.
Did you notice how I've been using the word 'rhythm' and not 'clock'? That's because your body's 'master clock' is different from your body's rhythm which is called circadian rhythms. People often confuse the two when in fact they're not the same. Our 'master clock' which is known as suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) makes us feel sleepy, alert, happy, sad, angry, hungry and excited while our body's rhythms guide our reaction with the outside world i.e. how lightness and darkness determine when we sleep, when we wake up, go out and come back in.
Breaking Down the Science
Circadian rhythms refer to the 24-hour cycle in a human being and can be traced to a tiny portion of our brain that links our body's clock to the environment. The word circadian comes from the Latin words 'circa' which means 'around' and 'dies' which means 'days'. Studies show that circadian rhythms do waver during adolescent years. It's probably why teenagers feel compelled to stay up late.
Michael Terman from Columbia University Medical Center and Ian McMahan from City University of New York explain circadian rhythms in their book Reset Your Inner Clock as, "Millions of people also have a circadian cycle that makes it really hard for them to sleep before midnight. But that's not always abnormal or a reason for worry - it's simply different from the majority. But because the circadian clock is so important in determining the sleep/wake cycle, the first step would be to carefully examine a person's rhythms."
According to the National Sleep Foundation, "The circadian rhythm dips and rises at different times of the day, so adults' strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 2:00-4:00 am and in the afternoon between 1:00-3:00 pm, although there is some variation depending on whether you are a 'morning person' or 'evening person'."
The Importance of the Three 8-Hour Clocks
Circadian rhythms are said to be in line with the earth's rotation and Ayurveda says that when these rhythms go out of sync, diseases and imbalances can develop. What could disrupt these rhythms? While the most important factor for circadian rhythms is the light and dark cycle, modern lifestyles have triggered a whole set of social factors. Let's look at some of these factors in detail:
1. Waking up at a different time every morning - The time you sleep and when you wake up could be the root cause of this disturbance. It's also the first thing that exposes circadian rhythms to changing light exposure creating a sudden imbalance.
2. Jet Lag - When you fly from one time zone to another, your environment changes. Circadian rhythms can't keep up with this sudden shift and is the reason why you feel jet lagged.
3. Exposure to artificial lighting - According to the British journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, staring at your smartphones, tablets or laptop screens for long hours at night restricts production of the sleep inducing hormone melatonin. This disrupts the body's circadian rhythm, leaves you sleepless and can have some serious health implications.
4. Depression - According to an article published in the journal Hindawi, "It is possible that the disruption of the sleep/wake cycle could be the main cause of alterations of circadian rhythms in body temperature, release of hormones and metabolites related to the sleep time. Approximately, 90% of depressive patients complain about the low quality of their sleep. It is not surprising then that brain regions involved in depression are also implicated in the regulation of the sleep/wake cycle. One possible link for the narrow relationship between sleep disorders and depression is the onset of and anxious state that affects depressive patients when they wake up in the morning."
How to Eat According to the Three 8-Hour Cycles
Elimination Cycle, 4 AM to 12 Noon
According to the authors of the book Fit for Life: Not Fat for Life, this cycle is probably the most crucial one, especially for those looking at long-term weight-loss. "It's that time of the day when blood that carries waste material to the four channels of elimination: bowels, bladder, lungs, and skin. From the time you wake up till noon, put nothing in your stomach except fruits and fruit juices." I know what you're thinking. "But breakfast is the most important meal of the day! Then why should I go hungry?" And I agree that it is the most important meal of the day. It's the meal that will create the foundation for the day to come and if have a healthy start then nothing's going to stop you from hitting your target weight.
What to eat: Fruits, juices, foods that hydrate you and are easy to digest. As soon as you eat something heavy, the process of cleansing halts, so avoid it. This will keep your weight in check and leave you feeling all charged up!
Appropriation Cycle, 12 PM - 8 PM
This eight-hour cycle is when your body is predisposed to burn calories and digest food. It's also the time when you eat most of your meals - lunch and dinner. It's also the time when your metabolism peaks. As long as you eat all complex carbs and proteins within this eight hour window, your body will work efficiently. Eat small portions spread over eight hours so that you're high on energy and don't feel hungry or weak at any point.
Assimilation Cycle, 8 PM and 4 AM
The body is now prepared to unwind, relax and prepare for sleep. It's the time when your metabolism drops and your body is absorbing the nutrients from your day's diet. Don't eat processed food and stick to water, green tea or honey lemon water. According to the book Fit for Life: Not Fat for Life, "If you can stay off cooked food during the assimilation and elimination cycles then you will come out feeling much healthier. And it will also help address problems of those who feel that they are suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome."
The Circadian Rhythms According to Ayurveda
According to Ayurveda, the world is based on five major building blocks or elements. These are: ether or space, air, fire, water and earth. These five elements explain how people are harmoniously connected to their environment.
These five elements mix and match to make three elements or doshas that set people apart - vitta, pita and kapha. Have you ever wondered why one person is too active and the other not so much? Or why one person is cheerful and the other is moody? Ayurveda explains this character difference by way of these three doshas. These are also what make up the body's circadian rhythms.
In Ayurveda, the body's rhythms are chalked out a bit differently. Instead of the usual three cycles, you'll find six cycles.
Kapha (6 AM - 10 AM) - This is the best, most suited time for you to exercise, especially if you want to lose weight. It's also the best time to take medicines because your body is going through a temporary healing mode.
Pitta (10 AM- 2 PM) - Pitta is the energy of metabolism and usually the time you'll have lunch so that your body burns calories as efficiently as possible. If you have a deficiency of pitta energy then your digestion will most certainly be slow. In Ayurveda, it is recommended that you have your largest meal during this period so that your body can digest it well. Pitta provides heat and energy to your body to breakdown complex food molecules.
Vata (2 PM - 6 PM) - This is a time for brainstorming and creative projects. It's also the best time to meditate, because we're better able to access and control our mental abilities.
Kapha (6 PM - 10 PM) - Your energy levels and metabolism is on a slow decline. A heavy meal isn't a good idea because your body might not digest it well. So eat light and eat as early as possible so that it doesn't disturb your sleep cycle.
Pitta (10 PM - 2 AM) - Pitta starts to slowly detoxify and prepare the body for the next day and late-night meals or heavy meals can disturb this cycle.
Vata (2AM - 6AM) - This is the time you're in deep sleep and your body clock is being reset to handle the next day.