Whether you’re struggling to adjust from jet lag or Daylight Saving Time or just missing some sleep, balanced nutrition can help you recover.
If you’re still recovering from losing an hour of sleep when we switched over to Daylight Saving Time, imagine what can happen when you are perpetually operating at odds with your internal clock. When and what you eat can affect this.
Your circadian clock runs on a 24-hour cycle that lets your body perform specific functions at appropriate times, which is important for surviving and thriving. “Clock genes” keep the master biological clock in your brain — your “central clock” — running according to your personal chronotype, while exposure to light synchronizes your clock’s cycle with your environment. Your central clock controls things like your nervous system, core body temperature, blood pressure, secretion of melatonin (the “sleep hormone”), cortisol (the “stress hormone”), growth hormones and your sleep/wake cycle. Jet lag is what happens when your clock and your environment become temporarily desynchronized.
About 20 years ago, scientists discovered that the rest of our bodily functions — including blood sugar and cholesterol, hormones, digestion and immune system responses — are governed by “peripheral clocks.” Your peripheral clocks get signals from your central clock to help them stay synchronized, but other things can easily reset them. This is where nutrition comes in: The main thing that sets our peripheral clocks is when we eat (feed) and when we don’t (fast).
When our central and peripheral clocks become desynchronized, trouble ensues. Many shift workers — and time-zone travelers — experience digestive distress because they are eating at unusual times, desynchronizing the central and peripheral clocks. Over time, this can affect how your body uses calories, leading to weight gain. It can also contribute to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
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Does everyone who lives in the same time zone have the exact same chronotype? No. Some people are early birds, some are night owls, and other people are somewhere in between, but the overall variation is only a few hours on either end. If you can’t honor your chronotype’s ideal sleep schedule (our modern world favors early birds) or you push your natural tendencies too far (night owls who stay up until the wee hours), your central clock may become desynchronized.
Research suggests that night owls have unhealthier behaviors, including poor sleep and less-nutritious diets, and are at higher risk of developing diabetes. Past research has found that night-owl types eat more after 8 p.m. and delay breakfast. A recent study found that night owls ate more sugar in the morning, while early birds ate more fiber. In the evening, night owls ate more sugar, fat and saturated fat. That’s on weekdays. On weekends, those differences were even bigger.
Regardless of your chronotype, late dinners or midnight snacks alter your fasting cycle and misalign your peripheral clocks — especially if you partake of sugar and refined carbohydrates. Skipping breakfast has a similar effect. This may be one reason why eating a bigger breakfast and a smaller dinner has been linked to healthier blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and less weight gain. Clock desynchronization — or lack of sleep for any reason — lowers levels of leptin, the hormone that helps suppress hunger, which can lead to overeating.
What can you do? The top two tips are to eat a balanced breakfast and avoid late- night eating. If you absolutely must eat later in the evening, life being what it is, go for a balance of protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fat and eat just enough to satisfy hunger.