The whole-health approach of Ayurveda works with nature to reinstate order and intelligence in the body, because when health is disrupted, it means that our natural rhythms are off. Circadian rhythms are the rhythms of nature (cyclical, seasonal, lunar, annual, etc.) that attune our bodies to a 24-hour cycle, driven by the circadian clock. This cycle has been widely observed in plants, animals, fungi and throughout nature.
Understanding our circadian rhythms can be especially important for keeping our children balanced, happy, and healthy. How so?
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of vpk® by Maharishi Ayurveda, stated that orderliness in our bodies connotes health, and disease is a symptom of disorder. Nature’s pattern, once disturbed, can create disease.
Circadian Rhythms Are Nature’s Rhythms
Circadian rhythms are generated by a biologic clock in the hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), or more simply put, the part of our brain known as the hypothalamus. This is one of the main parts of our bodies that generates our 24-hour biological rhythms. Notable examples of the circadian rhythms include the sleep-wake cycle and rhythms in hormone production. When our bodies, or the SCN, are out of balance, then abnormal behavior and irregular sleep patterns may be the result.
Sleep is all-important to health, and especially for a child who is rapidly growing and changing. Their sleep-wake cycle is critically important. Ayurveda recommends a routine that includes early to bed — for a child, no later than sunset, and much earlier for younger children — and regular times for eating and waking. These habits are considered the cornerstone of a child’s health, creating a balanced lifestyle.
During early development, the circadian system is established and is regulated by the light that our eyes receive. This is why there is so much attention these days on artificial light sources and the effect these have on our health — especially output from cell phones and other electronic devices that send our brains signals that are not necessarily supportive of our sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythms. In fact, Apple recently installed a feature on the iPhone that allows one to change the color spectrum of the screen’s light during nighttime, making the phone more rest-friendly.
Often referred to as the “body clock,” the circadian rhythm is a cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep, rise, eat — regulating many physiological processes. This internal body clock is affected by environmental cues, like sunlight and temperature. When one’s circadian rhythm is disrupted, health imbalances may result.
A growing body of research shows adverse health effects from a disrupted circadian rhythm, such as increasing the chances of insomnia, cardiovascular issues, and obesity; also a correlation with neurological problems like anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder.
Disruption of Circadian Rhythms
The SCN lies a short distance behind the eyes, and has photosensitive cells that interact closely with our optic nerve. It is no surprise that our daily cycles are deeply affected by our relationship to light. One of the important functions of the SCN body clock is to generate a daily rhythm of cortisol (a hormone related to stress and happiness). Also, melatonin, the mother hormone of sleep in animals, anticipates the daily onset of darkness and not only directs sleep patterns, but also directs the activity of all the organs related to our daily biological cycles.
Cortisol is normally at its highest early in the morning, and gradually drops to quite low levels in the evening, rising again during the later part of the night. The cortisol rhythm has an essential function: it synchronizes many of the clocks in other parts of our bodies, so they adopt a 24-hour rhythm. Importantly, they have different peaks and troughs relative to the time of day. So, our body prepares itself for the various events that happen as each day passes — for example, mealtime and bedtime.
When our children experience stress, it disrupts the normal daily production of cortisol. And if stress is persistent, then cortisol levels may be elevated and stay elevated, resulting in a lack of the usual cortisol reduction in the evening. This elevated state of cortisol alters hormonal signals sent to the rest of the body, and may cause disruption of bodily rhythms, sleep and diet, and eventually lead to an unhappy, unhealthy child.
Help From Meditation
Relieve stress for your whole family through the practice of Transcendental Meditation® (TM), or the meditation method of your choice.
At vpk by Maharishi Ayurveda we talk about TM, as it is the technique brought to the West by our founder. Research shows that TM, specifically, is an effective way to bypass stress, regulate cortisol levels and normalize sleep patterns. “Dis-ease” of all types has been shown to decrease, and sometimes disappear, with just the simple addition of twice-daily meditation. Children can learn TM at the age of 10, and it can be a fun family learning experience and group activity.
Importance Of A Structured Day
While most children are not at risk for heart attack or stroke, childhood obesity and anxiety, among other imbalances, are at an all-time high, especially in today’s teenagers. Any parent will tell you the fear they experience when their child comes home from a sleep-deprived “sleepover” at a friend’s house, which notably affects a child’s behavior. A simple and consistent ayurvedic routine of going to bed early, rising early, and having meals at the same time each day, is preferred.
Eating the main meal at lunch is a powerful practice for gaining deeper, more restful sleep. How does this work? Our digestive fire is strongest at this time, and it gives us the entire day to digest the larger meal! Eating in a settled environment is also critical for good digestion. Try to eat family meals with cell phones, the TV, videos, and other devices off. Favor nutritious meals with plenty of vegetables that are fresh, organic and well cooked, and if possible with all six tastes included.
Fun outdoor activities during the day are a must for children, as they pacify all the doshas and encourage children to be sleepy in the evening. Early to bed should be a priority in the routine for your family. This will be easiest if computer games, videos and TV are off by sundown. Late-night video-gaming or TV-watching may cause a disturbance to Vata dosha and keep your child awake well past bedtime. Vigorous activity in the evening can elevate the heart rate and may lead to trouble falling asleep as well.
Generally, children are healthy and in tune with their natural rhythms, naturally. As parents, we simply need to foster an environment and routine that allows their bodies to honor these rhythms. Structuring a routine that is healthy for our children has the side benefit of creating the same routine for us and bringing balance to our lives. So do the best for your kids and enjoy the benefits for yourself as well!
If we could offer one bit of advice for children, it would be “rest, rest, rest” in the proper time and place, as when our children are rested, usually the “rest” falls into place. TM gives profound rest to body and mind and helps children cope with stress most effectively.