This month we’ll be discussing the idea that ‘when’ you eat is just as important as what you eat. There are many nutritionists who are very passionate about this idea including myself so here’s ‘this’ nutritionists take on it.
The foundation of this idea lies in our body’s circadian rhythm or body clock. A circadian rhythm is a roughly 24-hour cycle that many bodily processes adhere to such as digestion. Other circadian rhythms in the body are the sleep cycle, body temperature, hormonal cycles, and up to 15% of our genes are regulated by a circadian rhythm. All of these processes relate to digestion which we’ll focus on in this article.
An easy way to understand and explain the body’s digestive circadian rhythm is to look at the concept of Natural Hygiene popularly used by the Fit For Life diet. Disclaimer-(I do not believe in the Fit for Life diet as a healthful way to eat on a long term basis but this pioneering book definitely deserves a huge amount of credit for some of it’s ideas and concepts which can be useful if used appropriately).
Natural Hygiene was formed in the 1850’s by four medical doctors wishing to promote weight loss and diet as the all-important factors in acquiring and maintaining high levels of health. What is natural hygiene? Natural hygiene is the body’s internal mechanisms naturally and continuously striving for good health by continuously cleansing itself of deleterious waste material. Further, it is the understanding of food and body and the effect food has on the length and quality of a body’s life.
Natural Hygiene can be divided into natural bodily cycles as put forth by the American College of Health Science. Scientists and researchers in their studies of the circadian rhythms suggest that the body’s ability to effectively function with food intake depends on the effective functioning of three regular daily cycles: appropriation, assimilation and elimination. Although all of these cycles function to some regular degree throughout the day, they are more active during specific eight hour periods of each day:
- appropriation – eating and digestion, is more active from 12 noon – 8pm and demands the most amount of energy comparatively
- assimilation – absorption and use, is more active from 8pm – 4am
- elimination – discarding of waste and debris, is more active from 4am - 12 noon and is essential to have at its side sufficient energy to discard toxic waste from ingested food and natural weight loss and metabolism. Metabolism in this regard is responsible for regenerating the body; thus, old cells must be eliminated.
These ideas are nothing new and can be seen similarly in Chinese medicine dating back thousands of years. The Body Clock found in Chinese medicine has many sub- levels in its mechanisms but on a basic level it begins with organ function/meridians and times of day they are the most active.
For two hours each day, each meridian which is associated with an organ or system has a high surge of bio-electric energy. (Proven by western science- our body’s nervous system runs on an ionic electrical current and there are documented bioelectric shifts on circadian cycles on a cellular level in our bodies. You can do a search on pub med “Cyclic AMP signaling” if you’re a nerd ). So the body clock is listed below-
5-7 a.m. — Large Intestine — Removes toxins from the night’s cleansing.
7-9 a.m. — Stomach — The stomach receives a surge of energy after a night of rest and readies itself to intake more food to optimize digestion and assimilation.
9-11 a.m. — Pancreas — The pancreas is the next organ in the digestive process after the stomach passes its contents on. Enzymes from the pancreas continue the digestive process.
11 a.m.-1 p.m. — Heart — Food materials enter the blood stream. The heart pumps nutrients throughout the system and takes its lipid requirements.
1-3 p.m. — Small Intestine — The slow process of assimilation and uptake of nutrients as they complete digestion pass through the small intestine into the bloodstream.
3-5 p.m. — Bladder — Metabolic wastes from morning’s nutrition intake clear, making room for the kidney’s filtration to come.
5-7 p.m. — Kidney — Filters blood (decides what to keep, what to throw away), maintains proper chemical balance of blood based on nutritional intake of day.
7-9 p.m. — Circulation — Nutrients are carried to groups of cells (capillaries) and to each individual cell (lymphatics.)
9-11 p.m. — Triple Heater — The endocrine system adjusts the homeostasis of the body based on electrolyte and enzyme replenishment.
11 p.m.- 1 a.m. — Gall Bladder — Initial cleansing of all tissues, processes cholesterol, enhances brain function.
1-3 a.m. — Liver — Cleansing of blood. Processing of wastes.
3-5 a.m. — Lung — Respiration. Oxygenation. Expulsion of waste gasses.
These are two well referenced and used systems for tracking your body’s metabolic processes and shouldn’t be taken as law as we are all bio-individuals. However use one or both of these systems as a starting point to understand the importance of when and how to eat.
Our digestive system is beyond fascinating. We use more energy and resources in digestion than ANY OTHER BODILY FUNCTION! Yep- more than lifting weights, running a marathon, or thinking really really hard. That might be why our digestive system has it’s own branch of the Peripheral nervous system which is divided into three parts. There’s the somatic system SNS, the autonomic system ANS, and the enteric system ENS-(devoted solely to digestion). I bring these points up to illustrate how important the digestive process is and how devastating it can be when we don’t allow our digestive system to work efficiently and rest when it needs rest. The resting periods are shown in both the Natural Hygiene and Chinese body clock systems and are vitally important to our health.
If we are constantly full and or are eating when we’re not hungry we’re forcing our digestive system into a state of exhaustion. Our stomachs can’t produce enough acid to break down proteins, our pancreas can’t keep up with the demands to produce enzymes to further break down carbs and proteins (not to mention produce adequate amounts of insulin for sugar handling) and our gallbladders run out of bile to break down fats. Any imbalance in the digestive process could be further linked to just about every disease and life threatening illness imaginable; by impairing our immune systems ability to fight disease.
Here are some examples of what can go wrong if we don’t give our digestion a rest once and a while. Un-digested nutrients entering our intestines won’t be absorbed properly and can putrefy causing our immune system to devote it’s energies to protecting us against our dinner rather than that bacteria we just inhaled during flu season. If we do absorb nutrients which aren’t fully digested into our bloodstream, again our immune system takes action to protect us and we’ll feel an allergic type response and not know where it came from. This is occurrence is what’s referred to as leaky gut syndrome and may be the cause of what’s known as food “sensitivities”. Also a stomach constantly bombarded with the task of producing more HCl (stomach acid) than it’s able to can cause low stomach acid. A low acid environment in the stomach can cause unfriendly bacteria to form which can cause ulcers, systemic candidiasis, yeast infections ect.
So what to do!? First let’s start with meal times:
I recommend to my clients that they give themselves approximate meal times with a 1-2 hour window. We need to honor our body’s circadian rhythm by eating at the same time every day, but we also need to allow ourselves to become empty between meals, and definitely at night when our body is detoxing. So in other words if your Lunch time is between 12-2pm don’t eat right at 12noon if you don’t feel hungry and you still feel your breakfast in your stomach. Wait a little while and eat a later lunch closer to 2pm.
First and last meals of the day:
Break-fast… You are breaking the fasting and detox you underwent while sleeping so give yourself a chance to wake up and feel fully awake and energized before consuming your first meal. I recommend a small but nutrient and energy dense meal to give yourself lasting energy for the first part of the day; without putting too great a demand on your digestive system while it’s still trying to wake up. Foods high in fats and proteins serve this purpose well and you might want to add a small amount of green vegetables or fruit with low sugar such as grapefruit to add some fiber and live enzymes to your meal.
Dinner- Never ever eat just before you go to bed. You should have a minimum 2 hours after your last meal before going to bed. In other words your stomach needs to be empty before you sleep. A full stomach before bed is asking for sleep disorders and worse (re- read the leaky gut part of this article). Because of the amount of energy it takes to begin breaking down your food your body will need you to be awake to have enough resources to get the job done properly. On that note eating desert (anything sweet) at night is a bad idea; especially if you have any difficulty sleeping the night through till morning. One of the many ways that sugar or anything sweet (as you body doesn’t know the difference) can mess with your adrenals, hormonal function, and sleep patterns.
Meal size: Limit the amount of food you eat at each meal to what you determine you can digest in 3-4 hours (the next meal time). Everybody is going to be a little different and needs to find what’s best for them. So if you find you’re never hungry at lunch I recommend you make your breakfast smaller. If you’re not hungry 2 hours after rising in the morning you probably need to make your dinner smaller. Lunch time is usually the best time to eat a larger meal and eat a sweet food and then keep the first meal (coming out of your daily fast) and last meal (going into your fast) smaller.
So to re-cap:
-stick to regular meal times
-only eat when your stomach is empty and you feel hungry
-determine appropriate meal sizes
-make sure you’re empty before bedtime
These are some general recommendations to help your digestion and aren’t meant to be exacting. A personal dietary plan can take trial and error or may require professional guidance to become effective. Contact us if you’d like to schedule a free nutrition consultation to learn more about a nutritional therapy session. Stay well.