At the risk of sounding like a child of the flower power generation, I must regretfully tell you that your body is out of rhythm with the natural order. That’s not a mystical assessment. I’m not reading your aura. This speculation is based on science…lot’s of science. So much science that as I dug through the research I wondered why I hadn’t heard more about this research? Whatever the reason, a quiet revolution in the science of circadian rhythms has slipped under the radar of those of us who have digestive and immunity problems.
Many know of the circadian rhythm in relation to sleep issues. However, these rhythms control so much more, starting with our genetic expressions and what peptides and hormones get excreted at particular times of the day, to how our immune system interacts with our gut, to how our liver processes oxidants…the list goes on and on.
For me, this research didn’t start with the circadian rhythm. I needed a protocol to lower inflammation. I’d read that intermittent fasting was getting good results, so I tried it. I stopped eating after 6pm and then wouldn’t eat again until 6am. A twelve hour fast wasn’t a big deal among the folks who support intermittent fasting. The most common style of intermittent fasting features a sixteen-hour fast with an eight-hour feeding window throughout the day. Since I’ve been dealing with a lot of illness, I didn’t want to start that strong. I chose twelve on and twelve off, as a more gentle option. After a few days of trying that and getting much relief of my inflammation, I kicked it up twice a week to fourteen-hour fasting and a ten-hour feeding window.
The effect on my body was amazing. Not only did it lower my inflammation, but my energy increased dramatically—something anyone with chronic fatigue will tell you is a miracle! In addition, my head cleared of some minor brain fog and my digestion improved, with less bloating and more regular bowel movements. As the cherry on the top of this amazing health sundae, I lost 15 lbs in six weeks without even trying.
Things progressed so well, and so fast, that I actually got a little nervous. I was losing almost 3 lbs a week. So, with the holidays under way, I decided to take a break from the fasting schedule. Within a week, the cranky, tired, inflamed and brain-foggy version of myself returned. After the holidays were over, I quickly jumped back into my 12-14 hour fasting routine. Within a few days, my body felt wonderful again.
What the heck was going on here?
As much as I loved the weight loss, I wasn’t doing the fasting for that. I was doing the fasting because it made me, a ME/CFS patient, feel like my former healthy self. Curiosity got the better of me. I started looking at intermittent fasting research, but most of it focused on weight loss and life extension. I wanted to know how this little miracle of increased energy, lowered inflammation, better digestion, lowered reaction to foods etc. was taking place.
That’s when I stumbled upon circadian rhythm research.
Our circadian rhythm is controlled by a small spot in the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleas or SCN. The messages sent from the SCN regulate what is called the core clock genes in all the cells of our brain and organs. The rhythms of the SCN and core clock genes determines when nearly everything in our body is supposed to be done. When our lifestyle goes against these rhythms we cause massive disruption to our body down the level of our genes. Take a look at how deep this rabbit hole goes:
“Remarkably, dissociating the timing of sleep and associated locomotor, feeding and metabolic rhythms from endogenous circadian processes had a rapid and profound disruptive effect on the temporal organisation of the transcriptome, such that when sleep and melatonin were in antiphase, the percentage of rhythmic transcripts was reduced to only 1%” (1)
Basically, when we don’t sleep, rest, eat and exercise at the appropriate times, the messenger RNA within our body, the ones that tell cells in our organs what time to do important functions, were reduced to almost zero. This means the cells and the genes expressed chemicals wily nilly, at the wrong times. Worse, the genes involved are most often genes that control metabolic processes. That impacts things like cytokine immunity interactions in the intestines, liver enzyme interaction with the intestines, pancreatic enzyme interactions with the stomach and intestines. This has even been shown to have a profound effect on the ebb and flow of the intestinal microbiome that can lead to dysbiosis.
What?! How have I never heard about this?
To make matters a bit confusing, there isn’t just one rhythm in our body. The circadian rhythm has a master clock that governs some big processes. However, different organ systems have their own rhythms. And while the master clock is primarily ticking its way according to the rising and setting of the sun, the other organs have rhythms that are influenced by when we eat.
Yep. WHEN we eat (and don’t eat) is the critical factor that tells certain cells when to release specific chemicals relating to digestion and metabolism.
Also, the microbes in our colonic microbiome have their own rhythm. Some microbes bloom and are active during the day and decrease in population at night. These microbes are ones that mostly affect energy production and healing. Other types of microbes increase in population and activity at night, and decrease in population and activity during the day. Those microbes are usually active in the processes of detoxification.
Muck with that timing at your own digestive peril.
Unfortunately, every study I read told me that our society, as a whole, was completely out of sync with these rhythms. Everything from how much we eat and at what times, to when we go to sleep, to when we work and play has been completely out of kilter with what our body is designed to do and when it is designed to do it.
Clearly, if we are dealing with digestive illness, then understanding the rhythms that govern our digestion would help us to meet the timely demands of our digestive system. How many of us are struggling with specialized diets and a cabinet full of supplements and medications, yet are not able to meet the most basic time demands of our digestive system because we didn’t even know that timing was a factor?
As I dug into all the literature, I was amazed to find out just how deep and damaging it can be if we are living in opposition to our body’s natural rhythms. There are a lot of ways in which the rhythms interact with digestion and immunity. These rhythms affect:
- The clean up of overgrowth (such as SIBO) & detoxification
- The function and motility of the intestines
- Histamine reactions and lymphatics
- Intestinal inflammation & permeability
- Metabolic function & energy production (mitochondria)
- The health and diversity of the microbiome
- Epigenetics and those pesky MTHFR issues
In my next seven blog posts, I’ll go over each of these topics and what the optimal rhythms can do for improving our digestion and immunity.
As a final post, I wouldn’t dare leave you hanging with a lot of information and no way to process it into solutions. The great thing about the circadian rhythms is that they can be maintained by our lifestyle (for free!). Plus, there is enough information available on practical application of these rhythms that allowed me to come up with my own daily plan. This is much more than just a twelve hour fasting/feeding time. I will go over my plan and how those changes effected my health then provide you with the tips and tricks that helped me through the process.
In a couple days, I’ll present the first post on how we can use the circadian rhythm to help our body get rid of bacterial overgrowth and more efficiently detoxify the digestive tract.