The Habit You Never Knew Was Causing Insomnia & Anxiety

Photo: Maximilian Guy McNair MacEwan

For hundreds of years, scientists have understood that living organisms contain internal clocks. These clocks allow us to anticipate the sun’s rising and setting and control much of our physiology. All life on Earth has evolved to be in alignment with the 24-hour revolution of our planet on its axis, and this alignment has caused us to evolve such that we are actually functioning as though we are two quite different creatures: one by day and a completely separate one by night!

We are designed and adapted to work, eat, and move during the day, and to sleep, rejuvenate, and repair at night. We function in perfect harmony with the movements of the planet; even our hormone production is coordinated with the rising and setting of the sun, in a complex system that has evolved over millions of years. All of this occurs, quite simply, to increase the chances of our survival. It’s only relatively recently, however, that we’ve really started to understand the relationship between the circadian rhythm and our well-being, and that’s why the news that the Nobel Prize in medicine has been awarded to three scientists who discovered the gene responsible for ensuring for controlling circadian rhythm is hugely significant.

Connecting the circadian rhythm, female hormones, and gut health.

Understanding circadian rhythm and its relationship with common issues like insomnia and anxiety is especially relevant for women: Estrogen, the primary female sex hormone, helps set the rhythm of every woman through the master clock in the brain. Estrogen alone is not enough to keep a woman "on beat," however. In addition, women need to manage their lifestyles so their clocks are always set properly in alignment with earth’s rotation.

The hormone melatonin, the production of which both reflects the sleep and wake cycle as well as helping to control it, in a healthy woman, is timed according to the rotation of the earth. But if you go to bed too late then it won’t be released at the right time or in the right amount. The consequences of this are significant: Melatonin plays many roles in the body. It is both a potent antioxidant, and new research has suggested that it also works within the GI tract to properly set the clock of the microbiome in the gut. If the clocks of the microbes living within the gut have faulty timing, this can lead to a whole host of metabolic, emotional, and immune problems.

The problem with an inconsistent sleep-wake cycle.

If you don't keep a consistent sleep schedule—even with short interruptions, such as going to bed later and eating at different times on the weekend––you risk developing a sleep-phase disorder. This amounts to your body thinking it is in a different time zone than the one you’re living in. Let’s say your body thinks you’re in New York when you’re in California: You wake up as if you were living in New York, at three in the morning instead of six and then that night, you start to feel drowsy three hours earlier than you should. Soon, your body is completely out of whack. Your hormone and neurotransmitter production changes, and directly––through the activation of the adrenal axis––and indirectly––through inflammation in the gut––your mental health starts to fail, and anxiety and depression can set in.

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The role of sunlight and diet in your internal clock.

Sunlight trains the master clock in the brain to stay on track. You should start each day with exposure to bright light in the morning, get sun exposure between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in the middle of the day, and then end each day by watching the sunset and dimming the lights in your home. Flight attendants, nurses, and other women who do shift work have huge issues with their circadian rhythm because the patterns of sleeping and eating they follow are irregular and don’t relate to the movement of the planet. But sadly, large numbers of women who work regular hours develop circadian rhythm problems, too. Poor lifestyle choices like too many animal products and unhealthy fast eating at irregular hours of the day can disrupt your circadian rhythm in much the same way as working a night shift can. This creates what is known as "social jet lag." As a side note, birth control pills have been documented to create a similar effect.

It’s essential that you keep your rhythm properly timed by practicing excellent sleep and eating habits. Some good ways to do this are eating within two hours of awakening, eating no more than three meals a day (that means no snacking!) and refraining from eating after seven at night. Although this sounds simple, plenty of women don’t follow this basic advice and don’t realize the consequences. Timed eating and proper sleep tell your body what the time is, so it can function effectively.

When you ignore the rhythms of nature, you risk insomnia, anxiety, depression, and a multitude of medical problems. So why not start living in alignment with your planet today?

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