Too much freedom from our normal schedules isn’t necessarily the best thing for body or mind.
Our body’s circadian rhythm is our master schedule keeper. Working in a 24-hour cycle in sync with the rotation of the earth, our internal clock controls our sleep-wake cycles, telling the body when to gear down for sleep and when to generate energy to wake up and start the day.
You can especially feel the effects of your circadian rhythm running awry when you are sleep deprived and get extra drowsy during that 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. energy dip when you make a mad dash for the coffee machine.
Sleeping too much
Stuck at home, schedules have gone out the window and many people are now getting too much sleep, notes Dr. Fulvia Milite, Director of the White Plains Hospital Sleep Center. “Being home is forcing people out of their normal daily routines, which is one of the worst side effects from all of this,” Dr. Milite says. “They are going to bed later and waking up later, or even taking naps when there’s nothing else to do. This has made it more difficult to fall asleep at night.”
External cues, such as mealtimes and physical activity, help to guide our body clocks to keep us on track. For instance, darkness induces the release of melatonin to help us get sleepy at bedtime, while the rising sun jump-starts our systems and gives us energy to wake up and start the day.
Some of Dr. Milite’s patients are also reporting higher levels of anxiety from watching the news all day and spending too much time on social media. All the uncertainty about their jobs and their health is compounded by sleep issues brought about by lack of routine.
Metabolism and the body clock
That is not all. Our metabolism follows a daily rhythm too, with our hormones, digestive enzymes and our digestive systems all accustomed to performing its best at certain times of the day. “Mealtimes and snack times are external cues for the body’s clock, they are clues to help the body know what time it is,” says Dr. Milite.
As people stay up later, they are also eating later, which impacts the body’s ability to digest and burn calories optimally, preventing excess weight gain. A recent study showed that eating meals at 8 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. resulted in greater fat burn than when subjects skipped breakfast and had a late-night snack (at 10 p.m.) instead — even though the nutritional value of the late night snack was the same as the breakfast. The body’s circadian rhythm programs the body to burn fat during sleep. So, late-evening snacking delays the body’s ability to target fat stores for energy, instead targeting readily accessible carbohydrates.
Eating to relax
What you eat or drink before going to bed can help you get a restful night’s sleep or leave you counting sheep all night. Food produces serotonin, a hormone that calms the body and promotes sleep. Complex carbohydrates found in brown rice, whole grain breads and pasta can help raise the body’s serotonin levels. And that satisfied feeling you get after eating Thanksgiving turkey? That comes from the amino acid tryptophan, which also promotes serotonin. If you’re tired of turkey, tryptophan can also be found in chicken, fish and low-fat cheese. But if you want to have pleasant dreams, avoid deep fried foods like chicken wings. You taste buds may thank you but fried foods are harder to digest, which will keep you awake longer.
There are plenty of tasty sleep-inducing snacks for late-night noshing that work well together, such as peanut butter on whole wheat crackers, a banana with low fat yogurt and an apple with string cheese.
Certain drinks can also help you relax. Your grandparents’ remedy for a good night’s may have been a glass of warm milk, which contains tryptophan. Herbal teas such as chamomile or peppermint can also star you on the road to a restful night’s sleep. “You should, of course, avoid caffeine,” says Dr. Milite. “It’s a stimulant that can affect people differently but even a small amount can keep you awake. A good rule of thumb is to avoid caffeine after 2 p.m.”
What’s the best time to exercise?
With so much time at home, online workout options abound, and this is one addition to your schedule that you should make if you haven’t already. When you exercise doesn’t matter as much as making sure you pick a time that makes you feel the best and allows you to be consistent. Just try to avoid working too close to bedtime, as exercise raises circulation and body heat, which fights against the body clock’s mechanisms to induce sleep.
Freedom from our normal schedules may have been nice initially, but Dr. Milite suggests getting back on track as soon as possible, especially if you are having trouble sleeping at night. Get up close to your normal time, shower, eat breakfast, start your day like you normally would (within an hour or so) even if you don’t leave the house. By this point, everyone is eager to get back to our co-workers, friends, and active lives as soon as possible. Sticking to a schedule will ensure your body is ready.