Chronotypes and Nutrition - ‘Perfect Timing’

// Kate Hope, MS, CNS


Chronotypes and Nutrition

Chronotypes and Nutrition - ‘Perfect Timing’

Are you a morning lark or a night owl? Do you enjoy rising at the crack of dawn, doing your best work when the day is young, and then winding down after the sun sets? Or are you more inclined to sleep in, only to gain energy as the day progresses, preferring to work and play at night? You may identify with one of these two sleep “chronotypes” or you may fall somewhere in between.

Sleep Chronotypes Definition

Chronobiology and Chronotypes

Our daily sleep-wake cycle is governed by an internal biological clock that operates on a near 24-hour cycle called the circadian rhythm (from the Latin, “circa diem” which means “approximately one day”). Chronobiology is the study of how this process regulates almost every function of life, including sleep, arousal, feeding, and a host of metabolic activities.*1 Studies show that our genes have significant influence over our sleep habits and circadian rhythm, with natural variations from person to person.*2,3

Scientists have discovered a gene variant that may influence the tendency for someone to awake earlier or later by as much as one hour. Differences in Period1 (Per1), a member of the family of genes that are linked to circadian timing, may account for the propensity to live as either a morning lark or a night owl.2 Another single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) on the Period 3 gene (Per3) also shows a modest impact on sleep and circadian variability.*3

Personal chronotypes aside, today’s lifestyle, with artificial lighting, irregular work schedules and erratic eating patterns, can disrupt the natural daily cycle even further.*4 So even if you do not have the morning lark or night owl gene variations, it is still important to honor your circadian rhythm for a healthy balanced life.

The Master Biological Clock and our Metabolism

What regulates our circadian rhythm? As nature would have it, we are equipped with a master biological clock that is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus gland. It is directed by light cues through the retina, which reset the clock each day. The master clock then coordinates peripheral clocks which are found in nearly every cell of the body, directed by a common set of clock genes that ultimately regulate metabolism*5,6,7

Hormones such as cortisol and melatonin are controlled by clock genes, and they ebb and flow over the 24 hour day, regulating our body’s various activities when we are awake and asleep. Science is now discovering that virtually all of our body systems, including the immune, reproductive, cardiovascular and renal systems, as well as our microbiome, are under the control of circadian rhythm.*5,8

Humans have evolved to be active during the daylight hours and to rest when it is dark. Our physiological processes reflect this pattern and perform different functions during various times of the 24 hour day. However, modern technology now allows us to eat, sleep and work anytime during the day or night. This can cause a disruption in the natural diurnal cycle.

Misalignment of the Circadian Rhythm

It is recognized that some people suffer from a misaligned circadian system. Some individuals are often awake until 2:00 am or later, while others may choose sleep onset as early as 6:00 pm if allowed.*9,10 In addition, those who engage in shift work, and travelers who experience frequent jet lag, often disrupt their natural daily rhythm. Stress, and substandard lifestyle habits such as a bad diet and improper sleep hygiene, may result in a dysfunctional circadian rhythm. This can lead to problems with our stress-control system, also known as the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis.)*11

Balance your Chronotype through Lifestyle Measures and Chrononutrition

What can you do to support your chronotype? Optimizing the HPA axis through nutrition and lifestyle measures can reduce stress and allow for better sleep and improved health. The following are some suggestions to get your circadian rhythm back in sync.

Sleep Hygiene and Lighting

It is best if we sleep during the dark hours and are awake during the daylight. Most adults require 7-9 hours of shut-eye for optimum health. However, if you are a shift worker or choose a very early sleep onset, bright light therapy timed appropriately has been shown to be effective, and can help normalize the circadian rhythm.*12

For the rest of us, and especially those who choose very late sleep onset, bright lights should be avoided in the evening. Try to make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. When it is time for bed, turn off electronic devices, ensure that it is quiet, and eliminate any extraneous light. Blackout curtains can help keep your room dark.

Meal Timing and Diet

There is evidence that eating meals within a narrow window (8-12 hours) during the day may support weight management, and can better regulate leptin and ghrelin levels (our hunger and satiety hormones).*13 Eating a hearty breakfast which includes protein, and saving carbohydrates for later in the day, may allow you more consistent energy and can help you sleep better at night. If you’re a night owl, just make sure you don’t pack in loads of extra calories during the wee hours.

An imbalance in cytokines may have a profound effect on circadian clocks. Foods that contain essential fatty acids that target NF-KappaB and AMPK (5' adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase) can be helpful.14 Omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosopentanoic and docosahexanoic acids (EPA and DHA), as well as turmeric and berberine are good choices to include.*

Dietary management of circadian rhythm may include vegetables and spices that contain phyto-nutrients such as polyphenols and flavonoids.15 Additionally, a nutritional program to balance the circadian cycle should include macronutrient choices that support glycemic balance.*16

Vitamins, Minerals and Antioxidants

Vitamin C, along with the B vitamins, are important for adrenal health, and they are easily depleted by stress.* For HPA axis support and circadian rhythm balance, be particularly mindful to obtain adequate amounts of vitamins B2, B6, and B12.*17Foods and supplements rich in magnesium can also help in the management of circadian sleep.*18


A number of herbs have been shown to balance the HPA axis and manage stress hormones. The herb Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) may be effective in inhibiting the release of cortisol, blocking the CRHR1 receptor (corticotropin releasing hormone receptor 1).* This can be helpful when dealing with HPA axis activity, and managing stress.*19 Other herbs include Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), and Epimedium (Epimedium brevicornum).*20,21,22,23

Those with sleep problems are often fatigued during the day. Rhodiola rosacea is another adaptogenic herb that exhibits cortisol-lowering effects, which can balance the HPA axis and alleviate stress.*24


Supplemental melatonin has been shown to support circadian rhythm.*25,26,27 Favorable effects of melatonin on circadian rhythm and sleep have been indicated in numerous studies.9,12,25

Whether you are a morning lark, a night owl, or another one of our fine feathered friends in between, pay attention to your natural tendencies for sleeping and waking using lifestyle modifications, appropriate timing of diet, and supplement interventions when necessary.

HPA Axis Optimization Program

Kate Hope, MS, CNS

Kate Hope is a Board Certified Nutrition Specialist with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Science in Applied Clinical Nutrition. She has been a science educator for two decades, teaching children as well as providing professional development for teachers. Kate is a nutritionist for Atlantic Medicine and Wellness in Wall, NJ, and she also has a private nutritional consulting business in Freehold, NJ. Kate sits on the Wellness Committee for her district’s Board of Education, and is the Educational Outreach Coordinator for her local organic community gardens. She is a member of the National Science Teachers Association, the American College of Nutrition, and the American Nutrition Association. Kate recently co-authored a chapter entitled, "Circadian Rhythms-Light/Dark Cycles," for the medical text book, Integrative and Functional Medical Nutrition Therapy: Principles and Practices, published by Springer (2018).

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