By Aviva Patz
There's an optimal time for every health move, from eating breakfast and taking your allergy meds to quitting smoking and even having sex. Here's how to tune into those magic hours to boost your everyday well-being - and your long-term health.
There's never a bad time to do something healthy, right? Not so fast. When it comes to maximizing your health, timing is everything. That's because we're hardwired to follow a "body clock," an internal timer that tells the body whether to sleep or work, nibble a light salad or devour a hearty stew, ovulate or grab a maxi pad. "Everything in nature works on a rhythm that is defined by time — hours, days, nights, weeks, seasons, years, and more," says Matthew Edlund, M.D., director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Sarasota, FL, and author of The Body Clock Advantage. Unfortunately, our lifestyle — wolfing down lunch at 3 p.m. between meetings, flouting our bedtime to watch The Daily Show — often throws those rhythms out of whack, which can lead to weight gain, up our risk of illness and disease, and leave us feeling sluggish and sad. But tuning in to your internal clockwork more closely has great advantages. "If you can get your innate body rhythms in sync with the food, activity, and rest you need, you can not only get healthier but even feel better day to day," Edlund says.
Calibrate your body clock with the timing tricks below. You'll improve your workouts, gain more energy, stabilize your mood, manage your weight more easily, and even prevent and treat illness more effectively. It's health as nature intended!
In the Morning
• Sleep an extra 20 minutes. There's no substitute for a solid night of z's, but research suggests that rising as late as you can get away with — even if it's just 20 or 30 minutes later than you usually do — can make you more relaxed during the day. Our bodies naturally crank up the stress hormone cortisol in the a.m. so that we'll get up and moving, but postponing your wake-up time can lower those levels just enough to take the edge off. In a study at London's University of Westminster, earlier risers (who woke up as early as 5:22 a.m.) had higher cortisol levels during the first 45 minutes of their day and tended to be angrier at night than later risers (who got up as late as 10:30 a.m.), regardless of how much total sleep they got. While there's no optimal wake-up time, the researchers say, set the alarm for as late as your schedule will allow. For best results, try to go to bed and wake up at about the same times every day; this will keep your body clock running smoothly.
• Weigh yourself. Stepping on the scale first thing (after the bathroom, before breakfast, wearing little to nothing) gives you the most accurate read on your weight, which can fluctuate by up to three pounds during the day! It's a good idea to weigh in daily: A study from Brown University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that 61 percent of people who did so maintained their weight within five pounds over time (compared with 32 percent who weighed in less often), mainly because it helped them catch weight gain early.
• Slather on sunscreen. For the best possible protection, apply it (year-round) a full 30 minutes before you head outdoors — that's how long it takes for the stuff to soak in and become effective.
• Bask in the morning light. Boost your energy for the day, and ward off depression, by getting a healthy dose of sunlight in the morning (after putting on sunscreen!). Exposure to natural light in the a.m. signals your body to cut off production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. Light is also a natural antidepressant, according to several studies, and increases your body's production of vitamin D, which may help you fend off cancer and heart disease. So head outdoors for at least 10 minutes early in the day, whether that means walking to a farther bus stop or sipping your coffee on your porch.
• Eat breakfast if you're watching your weight. A hearty starter, ideally eaten within 15 to 30 minutes of waking and no later than 8 a.m., will help you stave off a gain. "If you don't eat breakfast, your body thinks it's in starvation mode, and you'll eat more food later on," Edlund says. A Harvard Medical School study confirms that people who ate a morning meal were one third less likely to be obese than those who didn't. Go for whole grains (oatmeal, whole-grain cereal, or whole-grain toast) with a serving of protein (an egg, a tablespoon of nut butter, or a slice of low-fat cheese) and some fruit to keep you alert and feeling full for longer. Aim for a meal of around 200 to 300 calories.
In the Afternoon
• Take a power nap. A midday snooze isn't just for babies! By 2 p.m., your body temperature starts to dip, just as it does before bedtime, bringing your eyelids with it. Instead of hitting the vending machine for a sugar high — and eventual crash — try succumbing to your sleepiness and indulging in a 10-minute siesta. An Australian study compared naps lasting 5, 10, 20, and 30 minutes and found that 10 minutes left participants feeling the most refreshed, rested, and alert. Just make sure to set an alarm on your watch or phone so your doze doesn't go overtime, which can cause sleep inertia (that horrible post-snooze grogginess). Can't nap at work? Get off your duff for a 10-minute loop around the block. It's not as restorative, but it will clear your head and boost your circulation, energizing mind and body.
• Skip "lunch" in favor of two mini-meals (of about 300 calories each). Eat the first one three hours following breakfast and the second about three hours after that to keep your blood sugar steady and your metabolism fired up. Time the second mini-meal to coincide with the low of that afternoon slump we mentioned — so, between 2 and 3 p.m. "You feel tired, and it's difficult to stay mindful, so you start putting stupid things in your mouth," says Pamela Peeke, M.D., author of Fit to Live: The 5 Point Plan to Be Lean, Strong, and Fearless for Life. "But having a bunch of fat and refined sugars is the worst thing you can do, because your energy will spike and then crash." Instead, go for lean protein, high-quality carbohydrates, and a bit of fat. Peeke's picks: 1 Tbsp of low-fat peanut butter on a pita, half a turkey wrap, or some low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit.
• Get moving. Late afternoon to early evening (5 to 6 p.m.) may just be the best time to exercise, because that's when you're hottest, literally. Your body temperature reaches its daily peak (2 to 3 degrees warmer than in the morning), giving you maximum muscle strength, flexibility, agility, and stamina as well as faster reaction times. Even your lungs are using oxygen more efficiently at this time. You'll work out harder with less perceived effort and are less likely to injure yourself. Of course, any exercise is better than none, so if an early workout fits best with your schedule, keep it there. In fact, a.m. exercisers are most likely to stick to their habit: Studies have shown that more than 90 percent of people who work out in the morning are consistent about doing it.
• Down a glass of cranberry. You've probably heard that compounds in cranberry juice can help prevent urinary-tract infections. If you drink a glass in the evening, the juice will hang out in the bladder, fighting bacteria, till morning. Sip a cup after sex for extra protection: The juice can keep bacteria that's been pushed up the urethra during intercourse from sticking to bladder walls.
• Invite the night. Preparation for bedtime should start well before you brush your teeth. Wind down any exercise three hours before bed to give your body temperature a chance to cool and signal the brain that it's sleep time. Also close the kitchen (and the bar) two to four hours in advance, since it takes that long for your stomach to empty of solid foods; doing so will help you avoid indigestion and acid reflux. Aim for an undivided seven to eight hours of sleep every night. And because environmental factors, from bright moonlight to fluorescent street lamps, can disrupt cues to your internal clock, it's best to keep the room dark — no night-lights, no neon alarm clocks, and certainly no flashing cell phones. Your brain's pineal gland needs darkness to make melatonin, a hormone that tells your body to drift off (see "Bask in the morning light"). The pineal gland gets confused if it senses light, compromising your sleep quality. Melatonin also has been linked to improved immunity and lower risk of cancer.
• Slather on a sweat-stopper. Take a shower before bed (or just spot-wash your underarms — or your feet, if they've been smelly). Then dry off and apply the antiperspirant of your choice. At night, your body's temperature naturally lowers and you're less likely to sweat, which gives antiperspirant a chance to fully absorb and allows its active ingredients to go to work. By the time you step into the shower the next day, you'll be totally protected.
• Take your allergy meds. Both allergy symptoms and the pollen count are highest first thing in the morning, so take your long-acting antihistamines at night to avoid waking up to a sneeze-fest. Bonus: If the pills make you sleepy, taking them at bedtime might help you drop off.
• Pop an aspirin if you're a candidate for high blood pressure, the biggest risk factor for heart disease and stroke. In a recent study from the University of Vigo in Spain, people with prehypertension (blood pressure that's between normal and high) who took aspirin around 11 p.m. had lower blood pressure readings after three months than people with prehypertension who took aspirin at 8 a.m. or who made dietary changes. Researchers believe aspirin works by slowing the nighttime production of hormones and other substances that lead to clotting. Talk to your doctor to find out whether it might help you.
THE BEST TIME TO SCHEDULE...
A doctor's appointment: FIRST THING IN THE MORNING. Cut your waiting-room time by booking the first appointment of the day, before the doctor falls behind schedule. A morning slot also keeps you from getting too hungry if you have to fast before a lab test. And if you have asthma, your doc is more likely to catch problems in the a.m., since that's when lung function is poorest. If the morning's all booked, try to snag the first spot after lunch — by then the office should have had enough time to catch up. If you're picking up a prescription, hit the pharmacy before 3 p.m. on weekdays for faster service and less chance of error.
Surgery: BEFORE NOON. Your prime time for surgery is in the morning, when there tend to be fewer complications. In a study of more than 90,000 operations analyzed by Duke University, adverse events were more common between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. and least common from 9 a.m. to noon. That may be because the body's circadian rhythm dips in the late afternoon, dropping cortisol and adrenaline and zapping surgeons' energy and concentration. Also, you may be more likely to feel pain or post-op nausea in the afternoon. Try to nab the second or third slot in the OR: A study in the Journal of American College of Surgeons shows that surgeons perform better when they're warmed up. Whatever you do, don't go under the knife on the weekends if you can avoid it; mortality rates are higher, probably because the more senior physicians — who can set their own schedules — are off duty, leaving less experienced staff in charge.
A root canal: BETWEEN 1 AND 3 P.M. According to European studies, local anesthesia lasts three times longer when given in the early afternoon than when given in the morning or evening.
A flu shot: EARLY FALL. Flu season typically runs from October through March, so the best time to get the jab is September or October. (The vaccination takes two weeks to become effective.) The shot can help you skirt the flu's chills, fever, and general misery, and may also help prevent heart-attack deaths, which can be triggered by acute inflammation, according to a study in the European Heart Journal.
A full-body skin check: WINTER. This is when skin tends to be fairest, making it easier for your dermatologist to catch unusual moles or other changes that could indicate skin cancer. Alicia D. Zalka, M.D., an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale, advises taking note of any darkly pigmented, irregularly bordered, nonraised spots or patches, or nonhealing bumps resembling pimples that don't go away. "Any lesion that goes unhealed for more than three to five weeks may mean a skin cancer or precancerous spot," Zalka says, "so see your doctor."
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR CYCLE
Hormones fluctuate wildly over the course of the month, creating great — and not-so-great — opportunities for a variety of health moves. Day 1 of your menstrual cycle is the day your period starts, so schedule these actions accordingly:
Before your period - DAYS 23-28:
Stay out of pain. Avoid procedures like a root canal or a bikini wax: They'll hurt more now. "Endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine" — all natural feel-good chemicals — "typically plummet right before your period," says Rebecca Booth, M.D., author of The Venus Week. Reschedule them for ovulation time (days 13-15), when, according to a University of Michigan study, we produce the most endorphins to offset pain.
During your period - DAYS 1-3:
Get busy. It may not be the most convenient time, but orgasms — always great — are even greater during your period. That's because they cause a spike in serotonin, which is naturally running low just before and during the first three or so days of menstruation. Some women even enjoy a heightened libido just before their period, thanks to a drop in estrogen and a rise in testosterone.
After your period - DAYS 3-13:
Do a breast self-exam (BSE). A post-period rise in estrogen returns your swollen, tender breasts to their most supple state, making it the perfect time to check them for unusual lumps and bumps. Although experts don't insist on a monthly BSE anymore, when you do feel your breasts for changes, do it at this time of the month — differences will be more detectable.
After ovulation - DAYS 14-23:
Plan to quit smoking. Women who try to kick the habit now, after ovulation, may be less likely to succeed — possibly because they have worse withdrawal symptoms, according to a recent study from the Medical University of South Carolina. So set a quit date during the first half of your cycle (days 1-13), and use these next two weeks to get psyched and gather the support you need to stop smoking for good.
Originally published on April 21, 2009
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