The Rise of Circadian Medicine

Dr. Reuben Chen details five ways that the growing practice promotes optimal body functioning around the clock.
Keeping a regular eating and exercise schedule promotes better sleep. Photo: Ian Beckley

Circadian medicine is an emerging field focused on the interplay between circadian rhythms and health. Research is in its infancy, but the evidence is already overwhelming—disruption of natural biological rhythms can contribute to disease. Clinical studies show that alteration of the biological clock may increase inflammation, raise cholesterol levels, disrupt the gut microbiome, promote tumor growth and cause premature aging.

To keep your fitness clock ticking, here are five hacks from board-certified physician and pain management expert Dr. Reuben Chen:

  1. Know Your Chronotype. You’re probably already aware of whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, although most people fall somewhere in between. These aren’t simply preferences; rather, they’re biological. Along the spectrum of these two polar opposite chronotypes, people have different times for peak alertness, body temperature, melatonin secretion, and cortisol levels. The morningness-eveningness questionnaire is the gold standard for chronotype identification.
  2.  Your Job Should Revolve Around Your Rhythms, Not the Other Way Around. Most night owls have had the boss who is an early bird and wants to schedule a meeting at 8AM. And we drag ourselves, bleary-eyed, to the meeting, knowing that productivity isn’t in the cards. The good news is that Generation Z has heralded a new work ethic, where individual work styles are embraced. Talk to your company about adjusting your hours to match your biological clock. This is becoming more common as asynchronous work becomes normalized.
  3. Wake Up and Choose Your Own Ending. If you wake up raring to go, then early morning exercise or powering through some complex work is in order. If you can’t open your eyes, or that snooze button is your best friend, spend the first 30 to 60 minutes quietly meditating, doing pranayama or listening to relaxing music.
  4. Your Biggest Meal Is Up to Your Biological Clock. For those who wake up ravenous, make breakfast your biggest meal and keep it well rounded—chock-full of protein, rich in fiber and heavy on nutrients. If you wake up with no appetite, grab a protein shake with some fruit and have your meals get more calorie-dense and complex as the day goes on.
  5. Get Your Zeitgebers in Sync. A zeitgeber is a cue, such as light and temperature, that entrains your biological clock. If you’re an early bird, sleep with the shades open and let the natural light wake you up. If you’re a night owl, keep the shades drawn but use a full-spectrum light on a timer to begin to signal your body when it’s your natural waking time. For any type, make sure that your bedroom is cool to cold, as lower body temperatures promote deeper sleep. And keep your eating and exercise habits consistent. A schedule trains your body to know when to expect certain activities, which in turn primes the body for sleep.

Circadian medicine shows that the body is telling us how to function optimally. Once we listen and honor these rhythms, we’re taking another step on the path to wellness.