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Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life

white alarm clock next to white coffee cup basking in sunlightWe used to laugh about Joan’s parents, Leonard and Kathleen, because they would be in bed by 8 in the evening. They lived to be 94 and 99, respectively, and enjoyed strong hearts and sharp minds their entire lives.
Now it’s our turn. Our grown kids make fun of Joan and me for our early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine. Joan has been the queen of an early bedtime for decades, and in recent years I’ve come to appreciate the power of this habit. I have made it a priority to get to bed early, and this has been life-changing for me. I feel happier and stronger; I will never go back to being a night owl.
Let’s suppose you eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and get optimal sleep. If you had to sacrifice one of these, which one would you consider untouchable? Which of these fundamental habits is the most important to your survival? Surprisingly, it’s sleep. In fact, nothing else comes close. For example, if you were deprived entirely of sleep versus food versus exercise - you’d die most quickly from sleep deprivation - in just 11 to 14 days.
An Epidemic of Time Sickness
The pace of life has accelerated to the point that time sickness has crept into our daily existence. We live with one eye on the clock, constantly fretting about to-do lists, and spending our days running from one chore to the next. To make matters worse, most Americans today are not sleeping long enough, and when they finally do retire to the bedroom, they take their cell phone with them.
Many people stay up late watching TV, surfing the net or working on the computer. This “night owl’ schedule raises your blood levels of insulin and cortisol - both are hormones that make you obese, unhealthy and stressed. When these potent hormones are jacked up, you have irresistible cravings for junk food like sweets, fried foods and another fattening, processed chow. Living like this is at odds with your natural biorhythms, and it will suck the joy out of life, sap your energy, pack on belly fat and age you prematurely.
You have a natural cycle called the circadian rhythm. Every 24 hours your system resets itself when you first are exposed to daylight. This circadian rhythm affects almost everything, including your mood, alertness, digestion, and healing. Many of the most common ailments and complaints today are due to a modern lifestyle at odds with this natural biorhythm. A great new book by Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar called “Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life,” focuses on synchronizing your life with these circadian rhythms.
Your Internal Clock in the Hypothalamus
Your body always knows what time of day or night it is, even if you do not. You may be hyperaware of time due to all of your deadlines and commitments, yet your body runs on another type of clock - one that governs all of your cells and systems. This internal clock is housed in your hypothalamus - near the center of your brain - and it is the control center that regulates many key functions like your body temperature, hunger, thirst, hormone levels, wakefulness, blood pressure, and bowel activity.
In order to keep everything humming along nicely, your hypothalamus constantly monitors your body and brain, as well as your environment to keep you safe and healthy.
One of the strongest signals affecting the hypothalamus is the presence of light versus dark. There is a specific part of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that senses light so that your brain can synchronize your body to the cycles of day and night. When the bright light of the morning sun hits your retina, the hypothalamus powers up your system so you can greet the day with energy and enthusiasm. In the evening, as the sun goes down, the hypothalamus secretes the hormone melatonin, which makes you drowsy and ready for bed.
Life on Earth since its very beginning has evolved in this perpetual rhythm of daylight followed by nighttime in a 24-hour cycle; and it also has moved through four different seasons over the course of 365 days. These rhythms of life are very deeply ingrained in your identity - there’s no getting around it.
The body runs on a master cycle every day, with periods of activity alternating with rest. The quality of your activity depends on the quality of your rest. If you make it a priority to synchronize your lifestyle to this natural circadian daily rhythm, it will be much, much easier to stay healthy and happy. So when you get to bed early, get up with the sun, and eat most of your food in the midday, your hormones settle into their youthful ranges, which promotes a lean body, a bright mood, and ideal health.
“There is no tissue within the body, and no process within the brain that is not enhanced by sleep, or demonstrably impaired when you don’t get enough.” Professor Matt Walker, Ph.D.
Make these four simple steps among your top priorities each day:
  • - Set a consistent bedtime that’s before 10:30 p.m., and stick to it.
  • - Do some outdoor exercise in the morning before eating breakfast.
  • - Eat your largest meal at lunch rather than suppertime.
  • - Fast at least 12 hours every night.
Doctor’s Orders
Get to bed by no later than 10 to 10:30 p.m. Getting your sleep is arguably the single most important thing you can do for your well-being. Good sleep reduces the risk of obesity, promotes robust health, improves mood and most importantly - it’s one of life’s simple pleasures. The last train leaving for a really good night’s sleep departs at 10:30 p.m. Better to get on board the 10 o’clock train or even the 9:30. If you don’t turn off the lights and snuggle in until 11 p.m. or later, you will not be able to fully refresh your brain and revitalize your body overnight.
Get outside in the morning for at least 10 or 20 minutes of movement. Whatever works best for you: walk, stroll, garden, bicycle, swim, stretch or any other outdoor physical activity you enjoy. The fresh air and morning light will reboot your internal clock and boost your mood. Moreover, when you do exercise after a 12-hour fast, you will burn belly fat to fuel your efforts. Drink caffeinated coffee or tea first thing in the morning, even before you go out for your exercise. Don’t use sugar or other sweeteners in the coffee or tea though.
Eat a moderate-sized breakfast and a hearty lunch. Your smallest meal of the day should be your evening meal. When you eat a large, heavy meal in the evening, the insulin levels rise and direct all the calories to be deposited in fat cells. On the other hand, the calories you consume in the morning or at lunchtime are routed to the brain and muscles to fuel your productivity, leaving no leftover calories to store as fat.
Don’t eat any calories for at least 12 hours after your evening meal. The last call for any food or calories of any sort is 7:30 p.m., and all screens should go dark by 8 or 8:30 p.m. Then start your bedtime routine by 9 p.m. -  brush your teeth, floss, and perhaps take a nice warm bath, listen to quiet music, or do some reading. I love to do some yoga in the late evening, just before bedtime. Do not use prescription medicines for insomnia. If you need a sleep aid, before bedtime try melatonin, 2 to 3 mg, or aspirin, 81 mg (chewed and swallowed), or magnesium threonate, 1 to 3 capsules.
By synchronizing your life to the natural rhythms of your body and mind, you will become aware of time in a new way. It no longer will be a marker of looming deadlines, or a game clock winding down as you scurry from one chore to the next, but rather a series of opportunities.
Morning shouldn’t arrive to the sound of a jarring alarm clock, after which you drag yourself out of bed and then dash to the office. Instead, it’s a time to power up your system by getting outside for some exercise and natural light, then break your nighttime fast with wholesome natural food.
The noon hour is a time to pause from your work, and nourish your body with a filling meal, then get outside again for a little fresh air and a short walk. The evening is a time to reconnect with yourself as your prepare to rest and rejuvenate. When you fall into step with these natural circadian rhythms, vibrant health will emerge effortlessly.
Most importantly, get to bed by no later than 10:30 p.m. You should be able to wake up without an alarm seven to nine hours later. If you don’t feel fully rested, or still need an alarm to wake up, move your bedtime to earlier. This is time well spent - it will improve the quality of your life like nothing else can.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD