How do you know when it’s time to go to bed or wake up in the morning?
Like most things in modern life, our behavioral cycles such as sleeping and eating tend to be determined by manmade factors, like school, work, or what’s on TV, rather than environmental cues, like the position of the sun in the sky. But did you know that you have an internal “clock” that aligns with the patterns of the sun and is constantly overseeing the release of hormones that govern your body’s vital functions and signal when it’s time eat, sleep or wake?
According to Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest systems of natural medicine, when you live in a way that harnesses this natural rhythm, like a needle dropping into the groove of your favorite record, the entire physiological functioning of your body/mind complex plays out effortlessly in one perfect continuous symphony.
Discovered around 1970, the mechanism of your internal “clock” is called the circadian rhythm. It keeps your body functioning on a 24-hour schedule when photo receptors in the retina of your eyes communicate the brightness of your surroundings to your brain. Your brain then dictates an ongoing cycle of physiological changes in your cells; for example, your blood pressure is usually highest around 6:30 p.m. and your body temperature is lowest around 4 a.m.
Needless to say, electric lighting has all but dissolved our behavioral dependence on the natural day/night cycle, leaving us to effectively work all night against the glare of a computer screen and sleep all day with the blackout shades drawn if we wish. Scientists have found that when we’re exposed to too much light (gazing at your screen all the time) or to light at the wrong time (overnight), your “clock” goes haywire and your physiological processes get disrupted, like having perpetual jet lag. This disruption is known as circadian rhythm disorder and studies going back as far as 1985 have shown it presents worrying health risks such as heart disease, premature ageing, obesity, diabetes and hypertension.
Ayurveda has always emphasized the importance of living in rhythm with the sun (Dinacharya) for optimal health and wellbeing. When you get out of rhythm, by staying up too late, eating at irregular intervals or living through a pandemic when all your carefully cultivated daily routines have gone right out the window, you might experience imbalance at any stage of health from the digestion and elimination processes to emotional and mental wellness. Simply put, your body and mind respond best to routine. With schools going back and scientists warning us to settle in to “the new normal” for the long haul, it’s more important than ever that you get your groove back.
Ayurveda’s ancient fundamental recommendations for a healthy daily routine align almost perfectly with the circadian rhythm, advising going to bed around 9 p.m. when the release of the sleep hormone melatonin begins, or waking up early when your blood pressure begins to rise and melatonin secretion stops. Ayurvedic science divides the day up into six four-hour sections, each one governed by different elements (earth, water, fire, air and space). Understanding which elements predominate at different times of day can help you structure your day for optimal health, wellbeing, creativity and productivity.
Sleep to Dream
The Ayurvedic saying goes that the day begins the night before. The time period from 6 to 10 p.m. is dominated by the cool, heavy earth and water elements — powering off your screens a couple of hours before bedtime, turning down the lights and enjoying quiet, nourishing activities like family time, reading a good book or soaking in a warm bath. Get to bed early (and resist that second wind around 10 p.m. when the fire element kicks in) and enjoy the deepest sleep around 2 a.m.
Wake Up, Shake It off
While you are sleeping, air and space elements of Ayurveda predominate from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Their natural cold qualities are ideal for good sleep, but as the hours pass, their quality of lightness increases making it ideal to awaken with the birds around 6 a.m. If you don’t, earth and water kick back in at that time to drag you back under into that thick, heavy sleep that’s difficult to shake off for the rest of the day. In modern terms, melatonin secretion doesn’t stop until about 7:30 a.m., which is why we can feel a bit sluggish first thing, so it’s helpful to try to ignite your own inner fire from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. with regular morning exercise such as brisk walking or yoga, and a warm, light breakfast like fruit and cooked grains.
Hot Lunch Special
As the morning progresses and the sun gets higher in the sky, the heavy qualities of earth and water burn off in your surroundings and in your body and mind. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the hot, sharp fire element predominates, increasing mental alertness and igniting your digestive fire. The couple of hours before noon are usually the best period for productivity at work and should be followed by your biggest meal of the day. Your digestive fire is strongest now so make the time to sit down and enjoy a healthy, cooked meal that includes some lean protein (legumes, beans, poultry), whole grains (basmati rice, quinoa, barley) and lots of steamed or sautéed vegetables. Eat with awareness on your food, sit for five minutes after eating, then resume your activity.
As the afternoon wears on and early evening approaches, those air and space elements return like a cool breeze picking up from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. When those airy qualities abound in your body and mind, you may find it a little more challenging to concentrate on complex or demanding tasks, and better instead to direct your energy towards creative pursuits, learning, or catching up on communication with friends and family.
Flip the Record
As your digestive fire cools with the setting sun, it’s best to take a lighter dinner by 7 p.m. such as a nice, warm soup that you can easily digest before you go to sleep. Before you know it, the cycle begins again with the earth and water elements returning for the evening, and it’s time to get ready for bed. Get settled in in preparation for a good night’s rest and you’ll wake up tomorrow right back in the groove.
Photo by Jack Affleck.