What Does Your Circadian Rhythm Have to Do With Recovery?
Katy Harvey, RD, CEDRD
Most people know that it’s helpful to provide children with consistent sleeping and eating routines. Imagine little 3 year old Jimmy who skipped his afternoon nap and later is running around the house destroying everything in his path. Or how about 7 year old Sally who is “hangry” and raging at her mom. There’s a legitimate biological reason that these kids are so out of sorts over inadequate sleep and food.
Yet, somehow as adults we come to think that our eating and sleeping routines don’t need to be all that routine anymore. WRONG.
Just because adults are more capable of coping (sometimes) when hungry or tired, doesn’t mean that we should ignore these signals from our bodies.
Nature’s Circadian Rhythm (aka your “biological clock”)
Our circadian rhythm is why we naturally tend to prefer sleeping at night and being awake during the day. It’s pretty cool how the body can sense the amount of daylight (or lack of) and essentially tell time. Our melatonin levels rise at night, making us sleepy, and fall during the day, allowing us to stay awake.
This biological rhythm works best when there is a consistent pattern to our wake/sleep cycles. For people who have erratic sleeping schedules, they don’t have much of a rhythm to help their body know when it’s time to sleep because it’s become too unpredictable. That’s why sleep experts recommend going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time each day, even on the weekends.
What does this have to do with eating?
Our appetite cues are also tied to our circadian rhythm. When we eat at fairly consistent times each day, our body knows when it’s time to eat and gets hungry at that time. This makes our hunger more predictable, and allows us to plan for when we will need fuel.
If part of your goal in recovery is to become an intuitive eater, then getting in touch with your appetite cues is essential. This takes lots of time and practice, and will be much easier if your circadian rhythm is stable.
Tips for getting your rhythm going:
Set your sleep schedule. Determine how many hours of sleep you need in order to feel well rested (hint: studies show it’s usually around 7-9 hours per night). Figure out what time you need to get up in the morning, and work backwards from there to determine what time you need to go to bed. It may be earlier than you are used to, and you might find yourself resistant to this idea. But I promise you it’s worth it to get enough sleep. You’ll be shocked at what a big difference this makes.
Get better quality sleep. Make the most of your time in bed by practicing what’s called “sleep hygiene” which will help you get better sleep. Experts say that we sleep best in a cool, dark environment. It also helps to have a wind down routine before bed that signals your mind and body that you are getting ready to fall asleep.
Eat breakfast within 1 hour of waking. Even if you’re not hungry when you wake up, eat breakfast. This is the best way to get your metabolism and appetite cues going for the day. In fact, you’ll likely find that you’re hungry more frequently throughout the day when you eat breakfast (which sometimes freaks people out). This is a good thing - because it means your motor is running!
Set your eating schedule. Just like you set your sleeping schedule, you can set your eating schedule. In fact, having a schedule for sleeping + eating is the quickest way to get your circadian rhythm going strong. Make sure you are planning for a meal or snack every few hours so you don’t go too long without eating something. A good rule of thumb is to not go longer than about 3-4 hours without fuel in order to keep your blood sugar stable.
Use alarms and reminders until it’s routine.. Early on in the process, reminders will probably be necessary to help you remember your eating + sleeping schedule. Eventually, as your circadian rhythm has adapted to this your body will serve as your “alarm,” but until that’s well established, reminders on your phone (or good old’ fashioned post it notes) will do.
Be flexible. You don’t have to be rigid with your schedule or panic if you get off. Just do the best you can, most of the time, and trust that your body is smart enough to adapt. Consistency is key - but it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Why bother with all of this?
When you take care of your circadian rhythm, you then have the bandwidth for other things in life that you truly value. Your body will thank you. You’ll likely find that you have more energy, can focus better throughout the day, and that you will feel calmer around food.
Katy Harvey, RD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) from Kansas City. She has an outpatient private practice where she helps individuals heal their relationship with food, exercise and their body. She also blogs at Katy’s Blog.