What Is Circadian Rhythm Fasting & Is It Better Than Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting, which puts more of an emphasis on when you're eating rather than what you're eating, has quickly become a popular eating style. Not only can you incorporate intermittent fasting (IF) into any diet plan, but IF has science-backed benefits that range from weight loss to increased energy to reduced risk of chronic health problems like type 2 diabetes.
But what if there was an eating plan that took it a step further by not only timing your meals but making sure those meals are in line with your body's internal clock? Turns out there is. And this less-talked-about form of fasting, called circadian rhythm fasting or the circadian rhythm diet, has some serious benefits.
First of all, what is a circadian rhythm?
Before diving into circadian rhythm fasting, let's talk about the circadian rhythm and why it matters. Your circadian rhythm (also sometimes referred to as your sleep/wake cycle) is a 24-hour internal "clock" that regulates sleepfulness and wakefulness—or how awake and/or tired you feel during the course of a day.
Your circadian rhythm is controlled by an area in your brain called the hypothalamus, which is super sensitive to light. When your hypothalamus is exposed to light, it sends out signals to the rest of your body telling it that it's time to wake up. On the other hand, when it gets dark, your hypothalamus signals to your body that it's time to wind down. In addition to light, the other major factor that regulates circadian rhythm is your eating schedule.
All of this comes down to hormones—two especially: cortisol and melatonin. In a perfect world, cortisol rises in the morning, peaks again in the afternoon right before lunchtime, and then drops at night. Melatonin does the opposite. It's lowest in the morning and then gradually increases as the day goes on. That means, in theory, you wake up in the morning feeling energized and ready to go, then at night you start to feel sleepy and head off to bed.
What is circadian rhythm fasting?
The circadian rhythm diet, also called the sun cycle diet, encourages timing your meals with the rise and fall of the sun, and the corresponding surges and dips in cortisol. That's because cortisol has a significant effect on your thyroid hormones, which affect the metabolism of the food you eat. When cortisol rises in the earlier hours, your metabolism is also up and running and you effectively use the food you eat as energy. When cortisol dips later in the day, your metabolism simultaneously slows down, which makes it more likely that your body will store the food you eat as fat.
Keep in mind that this is how it works with normal cortisol levels and cycles. If your cortisol levels get too high—like in times of chronic stress—it can actually have a paradoxical effect where cortisol contributes to increased body fat, especially in the belly area. If you're under a great deal of stress, it's important to get that stress under control before doing anything else.
Circadian rhythm fasting also considers the role of insulin. When you eat, especially if you eat a meal that has a lot of carbohydrates, your body releases insulin in response to the rise in blood sugar. According to researchers from a study that was published in Cell in May 2019, if insulin rises at odd times—like when you eat a meal late at night—it can actually disrupt your circadian rhythm and increase your risk for long-term health problems, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Insulin also promotes the storage of body fat, especially if you eat too many carbohydrates or calories.
Amy Shah, M.D., a double-board certified physician and expert on intermittent fasting for women, previously explained it to mbg like this, "All of our cells and organs have clocks that determine when our genes should be turned on and turned off...you can't do all actions in the body at once. So when the sun goes down, usually the actions of digestion are turned off and the actions of repair and restoration are turned on. If you eat late at night, you may get slower digestion, inappropriate acid production, and more insulin resistance. This leads to fat gain, G.I. symptoms, and even diabetes..."
What are the benefits?
On the other hand, sticking to an eating schedule that aligns with your natural hormone cycles and avoiding late-night insulin spikes can help reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. The circadian rhythm diet also has other health benefits, like:
- Weight loss
- More efficient metabolism
- Increased energy
- Better digestion
- Reduced inflammation
- Improved immune function
Timing your meals with your natural circadian rhythm has also been shown to help improve inflammatory diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis (or RA) and inflammatory bowel disease (or IBD), infections, metabolic disorders, infections, certain cancers, and central nervous system disorders, like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease. It's even been touted as a powerful way to combat internal and external signs of aging.
What's the difference between the circadian rhythm diet and intermittent fasting?
While it shares similar characteristics with intermittent fasting, the circadian rhythm diet is a little stricter when it comes to timing. Unlike intermittent fasting, which allows you to determine your own feeding schedule, as long as you stick to your 12- to 16-hour fasting window, the circadian rhythm diet requires that you stop eating by 7 p.m. Another big difference is that the circadian rhythm diet encourages eating breakfast in the morning, when cortisol is the highest. Many people following regular intermittent fasting schedules skip breakfast entirely and eat their first meal around lunchtime.
The last real notable difference is that the circadian rhythm diet is typically built around two 12-hour windows. While you can extend your fasting window and stop eating earlier in the day if you want, it's encouraged that you eat between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and fast between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. For comparison, the most popular form of intermittent fasting (called the 16:8 method or Leangains protocol) recommends fasting for 16 hours a day.
What to know before trying the diet.
While the overall timing of your meals is important, it's not the only thing to consider when following the circadian rhythm diet. Felice Gersh, M.D., a board-certified obstetrician with expertise in hormonal management, recommends that, in addition to eating no later than 7 p.m., you also eat breakfast within two hours of waking up and eat no more than three meals a day. Yes, that means no snacking. You should also focus on building your plate with lean proteins and healthy fats and avoiding processed foods and too many carbohydrates.
And since the circadian rhythm diet relies on a predictable rise and fall of cortisol and other hormones, it's important that your circadian rhythm is actually functioning as it should. Artificial lights, extended screen time, and unpredictable sleep schedules can all negatively affect your natural circadian rhythm and throw your hormones out of whack. Eating with your natural sleep/wake cycles can help start to balance your hormones, but if you're scrolling through Instagram on your phone until 2 a.m., it can negate your dietary efforts.
To reap the full benefits, Shah recommends getting your sleep schedule in harmony with your eating schedule by going to bed between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. and waking up between 5:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. each morning. She also adds that getting two to five minutes of sunlight first thing in the morning can reset the hypothalamus and help with better hormone regulation.
Integrative medicine doctor and immune specialist Heather Moday, M.D., points out that it's also important to consider the artificial light and blue light you're exposed to before bed. Previously, she explained to mbg readers, "If you use a tablet for reading, make sure that you always use the backlight dimming feature and/or wear blue-light-blocking glasses one to two hours before bed. You can also use special bulbs in your bedside lamps that filter out blue spectrum light. This will allow for the natural rise of your immune-activating hormone melatonin."
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