Why I’m cracking my circadian code

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It’s been a while since I have done any blogging, but I have a very self-indulgent reason: I have been reading.

What a joy it has been to immerse myself in some very good books. These have included Nicci French’s Blue Monday (cleverly written but disturbing) and Susan Beale’s debut novel, The Good Guy. The former is co-written by a husband and wife partnership, which makes it even more compelling (just how do they do it?).

New Year, New You?

Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I’ve been aware of the prevalence of the time-honoured ‘New Year, New You’ theme throughout the month. While I normally carry on as usual throughout January (largely ignoring these messages), my interest was sparked when I heard Liz Earle interview Max Lowery on her popular wellness podcast.

Lowery advocates the idea of eating only 2 meals per day during an 8 hour period,  resulting in a daily intermittent fast. You’ll no doubt heard of approaches like the 5:2 diet, but this method means that 16 hours in any 24 hour period are without food.

The timing of this episode was fortuitous, as it chimed with the ideas of Satchin Panda whose book I am currently reading: The Circadian Code: Lose weight, supercharge your energy and sleep well every night. 

Circadian rhythms

Satchin Panda is an academic whose work he has distilled into a really accessible book. Focusing not only on diet, Panda explores ways to optimise our health through the alignment of our activities with our daily ‘biological clock’ or circadian rhythm.

In the early part of the book, Panda explores how the timings within our schedule are particularly important for our overall well-being. For example, it had never before occurred to me that getting up at a different time at the weekend would effectively create what Panda calls ‘social jet lag.’

Panda suggests that, by altering our schedule by going to bed and getting up later at the weekend, we are all de facto ‘shift workers.’ Instead, he advocates going to bed and getting up at the same time 7 days per week. This avoids the foggy brain and fuzzy head of a weekend morning, which we might previously have experienced.

A little experiment

This has prompted me to do a bit of experimentation. From early January, I’ve been going to bed and getting up at exactly the same time every day. Yes, even on a Sunday. For sure, I take things a little more slowly at the weekend and might even pop back into bed to drink my morning tea. But I am consistently getting up at 06:15 (which means lights out around 22:15 or 22:30).

A friend of mine has a son who has recently returned from the West coast of America. Many days after any genuine jet lag should have subsided, he continues to suggest this as the reason for him not getting out of bed in the morning. On closer examination, the ‘problem’ is easily diagnosed: social jet lag. He is partying late into the night.

Light

Sleep, of course, is intrinsically linked with light. Or rather, the absence of it. This means that we’re more likely to have disturbed sleep if we persist in using electronic devices during the evening when we should be enjoying the soft, warm glow of side lamps.

Panda explains that the blue light from electronic devices triggers a protein within the eye, which tricks the brain to wake up. Since the brain does not expect the stimulation of light at night, the use of bright light disrupts our circadian rhythm.

So, if we want to benefit from a deep, full restorative sleep, we’d do well to revert to an old-fashioned paperback at bed time. That’s handy for me, since my Reading Group (aka wine club) books are always physical books. So, I’m definitely going to carry on with this good habit. I’m not talking about the wine.. and cake.

2 meals per day

The ideas expressed during the Liz Earle podcast (eating just two meals per day) align closely with Satchin Panda’s time restricted eating (TRE).

Panda explains how the science around restricting daily eating to a 12-hour period brings impressive results. Even better, reducing the window to as few as 8 hours can be even more beneficial. The reason is because most of the body’s fat burning happens 6-8 hours after finishing your last meal. It also increases exponentially after a full 12 hours of fasting.

So, if you want to lose some weight, reducing the ‘window’ during which you consume all of your daily calories can reap real rewards (even if you don’t change what you eat).

Again, in the interest of science, I’ve been observing my own behaviours around food. I normally eat a light breakfast before I go to work; a snack mid-morning; a light lunch (normally leftovers); then another small meal when I get home. I might also have my daily fix of natural yoghurt and a couple of squares of dark chocolate after dinner.

I’m basically taking on food from morning through to night. That can’t be doing me any good.

So, I’m going to experiment a little and see if skipping that evening meal will result in better sleep and a greater appreciation of the food I am eating. If you think about what that 8 hour window means in practice, it means breakfast (for me) at around 07:00 then my final bite of the day no later than 15:00. That’s quite a change for me.

A time for everything

It follows that, since all the cells of the body have their own ‘circadian rhythm’, there’s a time for doing certain things during each day. If you eat from the moment you wake through to that last snack of the evening, your body will be in constant ‘digestion mode’.

By creating a gap between the last bite of the day and the time we prepare to sleep, the body can have disposed of its food-related responsibilities before it goes into rest, repair and rejuvenation mode. Equally, our bodies aren’t designed to exist in a well-lit environment throughout our entire period of wakefulness; when then sun goes down, so should our overhead lights.

If we are more intentional about our activities, we may enjoy myriad unexpected benefits.

So, I’ll read on and explore what other lifestyle choices I can make that might positively align with my natural circadian rhythm. I’m currently on Week 5 of Couch to 5K, so knowing the best time to run (for example) might spur me on and keep me running well – and with some enjoyment – throughout the programme.

But what about you? Are you aware of your own ‘circadian code’? Have you ever experimented with TRE (time restricted eating) and do you dim those lights during the evening? Do let me know by replying below.


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Tidying up with Marie Kondo

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We don’t have Netflix at home, but I had the chance recently to take a sneaky peak at Marie Kondo’s new show, Tidying up with Marie Kondo. Have you seen it?

The family whose story I watched were overwhelmed with stuff in their modest (albeit still spacious by UK standards) home.

This certainly wasn’t the worst example you might ever see on the telly; hoarding programmes show far worse examples. Nonetheless, there was stuff on the surfaces; clothes bursting from cupboards; inadequate storage; and mountains of unwashed dishes in the kitchen.

In particular, the couple (with two young children) seemed jaded and disconnected and were generally out of sorts. Could the KonMari Method™ make a difference in their lives?

Spark joy

I’m always surprised when I see the neat and diminutive figure of Marie Kondo on the television or in YouTube clips. Seemingly unconcerned by the sheer volume of the clutter her clients have to deal with, she immediately embraces the task in hand, repeating her tried and tested approach with unwavering positivity. The trick, of course, is that that the families – her clients – are doing the hard work under her expert guidance.

The key question Kondo asks of every item being considered is this: “Does it spark joy?” She invites the owner to handle every item, consider it, then thank it for its service, before it is placed in the relevant pile (trash, donate, keep).

Gratitude

Gratitude is a practice that brings about a great many positive benefits. Yet, how many of us show appreciation for the homes in which we live (or for the items that serve us)?

Our own house is coming up to being 30 years old, so certain aspects are really starting to show their age. Instead of expressing gratitude for our home, we invariably see the downsides (for example, the shabby kitchen or the myriad areas that need redecorating).

Kondo begins her time with clients expressing gratitude. In the episode I watched, she placed herself in a kneeling position on the rug in the family’s living room. Closing her eyes, and encouraging the family to join her, she performed a little ritual in which she acknowledged the house and said thank you. To the viewer, this can seem a little quirky, but it seemed to create a collective ‘deep breath’ before the family set to work.

Start with your closet

All minimalists say it, but I’ll say it again. Your wardrobe is the very best place to start if you want to lighten the load. Like a room within a room, your closet presents an opportunity to sort through a discrete space and derive some immediate benefits.

I’ve written about this before, so head on over to my earlier blog post if you’d like to follow my step-by-step approach.

Simple techniques

Kondo is very good at demonstrating how it’s useful to store similar things together. In the kitchen, for example, she shows how putting similar sized utensils together helps them sit more neatly in the drawer.

We do a similar thing at home with knives. Sounds a bit nerdy? Maybe, but you’ll find what you need and avoid the frustration of having to rummage through a jumble of objects when you want to find something.

Folding

Kondo’s method of folding items into little rectangles looks, at first, like a type of game-show challenge. Yet, how much more easy it is to locate what you need, when things are stacked neatly into drawers? If you have a lot of items to store, the KonMari™ folding method is certainly a very good way to making more visible what you own.

Instead of stacking items on top of one another, as in the above photo, Kondo’s approach allows you to see everything you own when you open the drawer.

For smaller items, compartmentalising drawers with little boxes certainly helps in this regard; it’s something I’ve done for a while and you don’t need special containers to do it successfully. A shoe box, or a smaller cardboard presentation or gift box can be used to great effect.

By the end of the episode I watched, the whole group was busy folding (a family that folds together stays together!?)

Enjoying the special souvenirs

If clothes are the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of tidying up, then ‘souvenirs’ (as Kondo calls them) or sentimental items are the ones that sit highest on the tree of decluttering.

Wedding DVDs and photographs (for example), can end up being consigned to the garage and never enjoyed. That’s certainly what had happened to the KonMari™ family in the Netflix episode.

In our case, we have a small collection of DVDs that are very precious to us. Kept in a small basket inside the cupboard of our TV stand (and in paper envelopes, not bulky plastic cases), these little videos offer a glimpse of our family’s past.

In particular, my father – an amateur videographer – has captured some lovely moments from when our daughter was little. These priceless momentos take up little room and while we don’t watch them every day, we do enjoy them. So, bring them in from the garage or dig them out of the loft: you’ll never watch them if they’re inaccessible.

Togetherness

In the concluding part of the ‘Tidying up’ episode, it was clear that the outer order generated through the family’s efforts had resulted in a much greater sense of inner calm and togetherness.

It’s hard to know if this was simply a result of the couple’s shared enterprise, or if getting rid of the excess had truly made a difference to the life of the family. I’d like to think it was a bit of both. Just 3 days ago, the New York Times published an article, which cited recent research on the impact of clutter on wellbeing.

So, are you a KonMari™ fan? Does her method of tackling clutter by category work for you or do you prefer to go room by room? Let me know by replying to this post below.

Next up on the blog: Circadian rhythms and 2 meals per day…


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