By Wilma Bedford
How many times have you jumped at a promising diet, only to be disappointed and giving up? The answer could have been right under our noses for centuries but we didn’t realise it until the ancient Chinese philosophy was tried out in some case studies.
In the age-old Chinese health philosophy it was believed that energy flowed through the body in parallel with the cycle of the sun, that the body had a natural clock that kept pace with the 24-hour-day cycle and that the energy in our bodies also kept time with nature’s day-night clock. At certain times this energy is concentrated in certain organs. For instance, the best time for breakfast is between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. because at that time the energy is concentrated in the stomach. As the day moves on, the energy shifts to the pancreas and the spleen and from 5-7 p.m. it is time for a light meal. This is also when the energy shifts to the kidneys. This master clock, the circadian clock, is seated in the brain and determines our physical, emotional and behavioural patterns and it responds to light and dark.
The purpose of the circadian clock is to prepare our bodies for regular processes in our bodies, such as receiving food at regular intervals, waking up or sleeping at set times, the release of hormones, digestion and body temperature. For optimal health it is necessary for our bodies to stay synchronised with the circadian clock. It is not only daylight that can change the times of the clock but also at what times we eat, and how much we eat can also affect the time of the liver and digestive system. Complex processes such as the metabolising of fat or starch requires the coordination of several processes in the intestines, the liver, pancreas and muscles. When the synchronisation or internal communication between these organs become mixed-up, they become less effective, with an increased risk of illness.
The body’s sensitivity to insulin (which converts the glucose into energy) is higher in the morning than at night. When we eat late at night the glucose stays in our blood longer and over a long period this could lead to Type 2 diabetes and other diseases.
When we open the curtains, the master clock in the brain is reset once more and the functioning of the liver and digestive system is also reset. A good breakfast when the insulin sensitivity is at its highest keeps the circadian clock synchronised.
Research by Satchin Panda of the Salk Institute in San Diego, an expert on sleeping patterns, found that people pick up weight when eating and sleeping patterns are disturbed. A study among young people who have left the parental home for, say, tertiary education and therefore no longer have the routine and balanced lifestyle of the parental home, showed an average weight increase of 7 kg. They do eat instant foods, but the main reason is their inconsistent sleeping patterns and late-night eating. Panda came to the conclusion that when you eat and not what you eat causes weight gain. He recommends that nature’s 24-hour rhythm of light and dark also be reflected in the rhythm of eating and fasting, and the function of this rhythm is to give the body a chance to rest and repair and reset the synchronisation.
Another three-month study among overweight women found that those who got most of their daily allowed calories at breakfast, lost two and a half times more weight than the control group, who ingested the same amount of calories late at night. Now the Chinese philosophy makes sense.
Late-night eating does not give the digestive system sufficient time to rest and repair and it lowers the body’s ability to burn fat. Fat is burned when the organs realise that no more food is on its way.
Set sleeping and eating patterns keep the circadian clock in the digestive system in the same time zone. When this rhythm is disturbed, even if you eat fewer calories, the metabolism is disturbed, which, in turn, leads to all sorts of illnesses.
The Circadian Code
Satchin Panda 2012 . Salk Institute, San Diego audiobooks
How meal times affect your waste line
Geddes, L. 6 March 2019. BBC Future Nutrition
How our circadian clock affects our health beyond sleep
Chen, Angela. Jun 2018. The Verge