Rhythms of Our Lives

The winter of 1001-02 was undoubtedly not an easy one for the forebears of the Nipmucs and Narragansett people who inhabited the shores of Lake Waushacum and fished the banks of the Nashoba, Blackstone, Quinapoxet and other southern New England rivers.

Life was even tougher for the Thule and Inuit peoples far to the north. When they got up every day, their first thought was of survival, even during a time when people in the civilizations of Europe, Asia and the Middle East were living in relative luxury and ease. Just like us, winter traditions evolved over time for these native people, but for them, many of the traditions were borne of necessity.

Anthropologists tell us that one of the keys to their survival was their mastery of chronobiology. This applied science of biological rhythms outlines how one can coordinate behavior with the cycles of the day, month and seasons to enhance performance and well being. Of course, these native people did not see their behavior as scientific; they were simply following the dictates of their traditions, their ancestral elders, their grandparents, their community values and the desires of the Great Father. Their scientific behavior was actually very simple: they went to bed when the sun went down and got up before the dawn. Their bodies, like ours, were hardwired to take advantage of every precious second of daylight.

Indigenous people also observed traditions around food that helped them to digest what may have been a heavy diet consisting mainly of animal proteins, fats and roughage, processed food being unknown. Their traditions prescribed seasonal routines that enabled them to survive a winter’s famine if necessary.

Modern chronobiology has shown why our physiological cycles are conducive to certain activities at different times of the day. Hormones that promote sleep, such as melatonin, kick in around 10 PM if the lights go off and kick out when the sun comes up, the same time hormones such as cortisol, which promote arousal and stress responses, begin to be secreted. This means that six hours of sleep from 10 PM to 4 AM, chronobiologically speaking, may be worth eight or nine from 3a.m. on. It was recently shown that studying in the morning provides greater retention of the material than cramming in the wee hours. Yet, a survey showed the average time for Harvard and MIT students to retire is 3 a.m.

Ancient medical texts intuited what the modern science of chronobiology has only recently begun to discover: that humans are diurnal beings with clear biological rhythms which, when obeyed, promote optimal performance and when violated promote depression, insomnia, chronic fatigue, chronic constipation, PMS and a host of other modern maladies that were rare before the advent of the electric light. Studies in night shift workers have shown increased rates of medical disorders – especially gastro-intestinal – as well as social problems. These disorders improve when the worker returns to the day shift.

Chronobiology was not taught as a formal science when I was in medical school and it still isn’t. Even worse, what we do know about this fledgling science is routinely ignored. A friend of mine did pioneering research demonstrating that a safe dose of radiation given to an animal at one time of day could be lethal at another. Yet his daughter, a radiation oncologist, admitted that patients were simply scheduled in her department out of convenience.

I got my best lesson in chronobiology during my third year when I was working at a hospital in the remote regions of Zululand. Walking at dusk down the only lane in a hut village, I noticed bedtime preparations going on in every home. On my way back as darkness descended, the same huts were completely silent. I was shocked to realize that these people were actually going to bed when my evening was just beginning. At the hospital we were going to use electricity, a commodity unavailable in the village, to stay up until 11 p.m. or midnight. By the following noon, the Zulus had already been working eight hours in the hot field, and were ready to call it a day.

My long years of experience in studying and practicing medicine have led me to the realization that the most complete form of health care blends the evidence-based practices of standard medicine with recommendations from the health science of the Vedic civilization known as Ayurveda. The 5000 year-old Ayurvedic texts have turned out to be very prophetic in predicting the behaviors that in the 20th century would prove to be associated with the health problems listed above. Scientists have identified the existence of “synchronizers” – biological influences that have the most profound effect on the creation of rhythms in our bodies. Some of these include light hitting the retina, food hitting the stomach, rest and exercise. Ayurveda used these same synchronizers to make simple recommendations for good chronobiological hygiene included below.

  1. Early to bed and early to rise. Lights out by 10 PM to prevent having to deal later in life with insomnia and fatigue. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and spring.”
  2. Start the day with a glass of warm water to stimulate elimination. Then shower and spend a few minutes doing gentle yoga followed by meditation or prayer before breakfast. (Ayurveda teaches the Transcendental Meditation technique).
  3. Take a good lunch and a light supper. The digestive fire follows the sun, so meals with heavier foods such as meat and cheese are more easily digested at noon. A heavy evening meal has a better chance of sticking around as unwanted weight and may promote reflux and indigestion when you lie down.
  4. Get a good half hour of exercise daily to promote metabolism, fitness and bone density. Simple walking is enough. The ancient Ayurvedic texts promoted walking just for the joy of it. The best times are early morning or late afternoon and not at noon, which is reserved, of course, for your lunch. Right after a meal is a good time for a digestive stroll, but not for vigorous exercise.
  5. Make the evening a time for relaxing, being with family or friends, and light activities. Insomnia often finds its root in a lifetime of intense work before retiring. I have noticed our health club is busiest after supper. It is probably better to exercise late than not at all, but if it becomes a routine, avoid an intense attitude and keep it enjoyable. You may be trying to stimulate your body to secrete adrenaline and other steroid hormones that may already be shut down for the night.
  6. Don’t forget seasonal rhythms. Our New England tradition of pancakes with butter and maple syrup serves us well in winter – workers on an Arctic oil rig may lose weight if they consume less than 7000 calories per day – but in summer, we need lighter fare including more salads and fruits.
  7. During the short days of winter, make an extra effort to expose yourself to sunlight. Your bones need vitamin D, synthesized by skin exposed to UV rays; even a half hour exposure of your face may be enough. In addition, your moods and even your libido are dependent on sunlight. If you simulate the extremely short periods of daylight in the arctic by staying indoors, your pineal gland will send chemical signals such as melatonin telling you it is time to hibernate.

Start to experience the benefits to your health of establishing regular rhythms. Write out your ideal schedule for every day of the week, making time for everything important in your life. Design a time to meditate, walk, cook, play and even eliminate. Use the morning, when you are freshest, for activities demanding greatest creativity such as art, writing, or planning your business. Soon your whole body and life will begin to function like the Swiss train system.

Most importantly, routines are liberating. Great musicians don’t need sheet music; they have so thoroughly imbibed the scales, rhythms and melodic patterns into their nervous systems, that they can allow their creativity to soar to the heavens, forgetting their limitations, and knowing their playing will always sound good as long as certain notes falls on the right beat. Similarly, we can set ourselves free to be more creative and productive in our lives by imposing a structure. This is a paradox inferred through the study of chronobiology: we gain freedom through routines.

Jay Glaser, MD is a board certified internist in Massachusetts.

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