If you work overnight shifts, pull frequent late nights at the office, or travel so often that you're constantly jet-lagged, you know how tough it can be to get good, quality sleep — even when your overtaxed body badly craves it. That's because having an erratic sleep schedule throws off your circadian clock. These cyclical internal rhythms rely on cues from the environment — most importantly light — to regulate sleepiness, hunger, metabolism, immune system function, and more.
According to a new study, you can get your circadian clock back on track by simply changing your diet.
A team of researchers from Japan found that the connection between diet and circadian rhythm is is all about the insulin. The pancreas secretes this hormone when food is consumed, and certain foods trigger more insulin release than others. Put simply, an insulin rush makes you feel tired. Therefore, the researchers say that by eating foods that cause a lot of insulin to be secreted, you can jolt your circadian clock ahead so you'll become sleepy, just like you should be at end of the day. On the flip side, by consuming foods that do not trigger a big insulin surge, you can dial back your clock to feel alert, just how you'd want to be in the morning.
To help you hit the sack at a decent hour so you can be up early the next morning, your dinner menu should include lots of carbs, says study author Dr. Makoto Akashi. "Given that insulin secretion is strongly induced by carbohydrates, if you're an early bird, you may be helped by eating carb-rich foods for dinner, such as pasta, potatoes, and rice," he says. And then to avoid an insulin-induced crash in the morning, steer clear of carb-heavy breakfast foods like bagels, waffles, and sugary cereals. Eat lean proteins, fruits, veggies, and whole grains instead.
Even if you work a 9-to-5 job and your sleep schedule is quasi-normal, your circadian clock still may be out of step with the time of day — and you might benefit from a little diet manipulation. According to Akashi, most people today lead lifestyles that don't allow sunlight to do the clock-setting as it should. Because we're constantly being exposed to blue-wavelength light emitted from laptop computers, TVs, and iPads, our clock is predominantly on a "night mode that is desynchronized from social life, leading to a kind of jet lag feeling," he explains. Therefore, Akashi says getting your circadian clock back in sync through food might be a key to better digestion, metabolism, and overall health.