By Lindsay Christensen
Nutritionist @ The Pratt Clinics
In part 1 of this two-part blog series, I discussed how gradually adjusting your bedtime, practicing good sleep hygiene, and exercising during the day can help regulate your circadian rhythms and ease the transition when daylight savings time ends. In this post, I’ll discuss the importance of sun exposure, meal timing, and nutrition for supporting the body when the time changes.
Get sun exposure during the day
Most of us spend the majority of our day indoors, away from direct sunlight. This is problematic because sun exposure is one of the most important cues regulating our circadian rhythms. (5) Try to get daily sun exposure this fall and winter by taking a walk outdoors on your lunch break and by exercising outside on the weekends. Your circadian system will thank you for the much-needed sun exposure!
Eat dinner well before bedtime
Fascinating new research indicates that light isn’t the only factor affecting our circadian rhythms; when we eat our meals also matters! (6)(7)(8) Eating too close to bedtime interferes with the “rest and repair” processes that follow a circadian pattern and occur during sleep. To reduce your risk of sleep disruption when daylight savings time ends, aim to eat your dinner at least two hours before bedtime.
Support your HPA axis
The HPA axis is the body’s central stress response system, formed by an intertwining of the central nervous system and endocrine system. It consists of the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain and the adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys. Together, these organs coordinate the body’s response to positive and negative stressors from the environment. In many people, the end of daylight savings time stresses the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, causing symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disturbances, weak immunity, and brain fog. This condition has commonly been referred to as “adrenal fatigue” in the integrative health community, though research suggests that “HPA axis dysfunction” may be a more appropriate name. Fortunately, you can attenuate the symptoms of HPA axis dysfunction and keep your body healthy during the time change by optimizing your diet. Your nutritional goals should be to correct glycemic dysregulation, consume nutrients that quench the stress response, and avoid foods that trigger HPA axis hyperactivity.
Correct glycemic dysregulation
Glycemic dysregulation is a potent HPA axis activator that increases the production of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. (9) While many people turn to sugary comfort foods for a quick hit of energy when the shorter days of winter creep in, this creates a vicious cycle of hyper- and hypoglycemia that stresses the HPA axis. You can prevent these blood sugar swings by eating high-quality protein at each meal along with non-starchy vegetables; these foods balance blood sugar and are satiating. For non-starchy vegetables, try broccoli, cauliflower, kale, asparagus, spinach, and summer squash. For high-quality protein, focus on organic poultry, grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, and wild-caught seafood. Avoid refined carbohydrates, which trigger blood sugar swings that activate the HPA axis and stress response. (10)
Eat your micronutrients!
The body requires a spectrum of micronutrients, which include vitamins and minerals, to support a healthy stress response. These micronutrients can be found in a variety of foods. Pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc, magnesium, vitamin E, and B vitamins, which support neurotransmitter and hormone production and quench the stress response. Beef liver is also rich in B vitamins and bioavailable minerals that fortify the body against stress. Liver is an unfamiliar food to many people, but it can be quite delicious! Try cooking it up with thyme, garlic, and leeks or make a delicious stuffed meatloaf. Vitamin C is crucial for adrenal gland function; it can be found in many fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits, kiwi, guava, papaya, brussels sprouts, and broccoli. Finally, magnesium is a crucial cofactor in many biochemical processes in the body, including the activity of the HPA axis. You can find magnesium in swiss chard, avocados, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cashews, and almonds.
Don’t be afraid of salt
For many years, dietary salt has been blamed for many health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Health authorities have told us to reduce our salt consumption to protect ourselves from these problems. However, salt is not as harmful as we’ve been led to believe! Salt intake supports electrolyte balance and hydration, which are frequently impaired by chronic stress. The salt cravings experienced by people with adrenal fatigue/HPA axis dysfunction speak to the importance of this mineral for fortifying our bodies during stressful times. Rather than refined salt, which contains additives such as anticaking agents, choose sea salt, Redmond Real Salt, or pink Himalayan salt.
Eat plenty of healthy fats
Healthy fats play a crucial role in supporting the HPA axis. Ghee, clarified butter made by skimming milk solids out of melted butter, is rich in dietary cholesterol, which our bodies need to build adrenal hormones. Ghee can be used as an oil when roasting vegetables and incorporated into healthy baked goods. The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, found in seafood and fish oils, decrease HPA axis reactivity, thereby reducing the stress response and improving wellbeing. (11)(12) You can support your HPA axis with omega-3’s by eating wild-caught seafood 3-4 times per week (be sure to choose low-mercury seafood) or by taking a high-quality fish oil supplement.
Don’t go overboard on caffeine
Excessive caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening, disrupts your sleep cycle and stresses the HPA axis. To help your body adjust to the time change, limit your caffeine intake to the morning so that you don’t compromise your sleep at night.
Adaptogens are plants that help the body adapt to stress. They can do wonders for helping the body adjust to changing seasons, including the end of daylight savings time. Ashwagandha, Holy basil, and Rhodiola Rosea are a few popular adaptogens that can be found at your local vitamin shop or health food store.
Reduce your stress
A high stress level can make the end of daylight savings time even harder on the body. Regularly participating in stress-reduction practices such as meditation and yoga, spending time in nature, journaling, and keeping a gratitude list can all help reduce your stress level and keep you healthy as the seasons change.
The end of daylight savings time can be stressful on the body, but the good news is we can mediate the stressful effects by taking care of our circadian rhythms! Practicing good sleep hygiene, exercising and getting sunlight during the day, avoiding late-night eating, consuming a nutritious diet, and reducing your stress levels will not only help you make a smoother transition when daylight savings time comes to an end but will also set you up for a healthy, happy winter!
If you need more information or help with your overall health, contact us at The Pratt Clinics.