Time and meals: what happens inside our body during the day and the night and how does our metabolism react?

Time and meals: what happens inside our body during the day and the night and how does our metabolism react?

Italy is certainly a good example when talking about eating habits and schedules as meals are a sort of ritual throughout the peninsula - and especially in the South - and as such take place at a specific time.

Although a new working lifestyle requires us to spend many more hours away from home and to give up family meals, there is no Italian company that does not include a lunch break between noon and two. Also, don’t tell an Italian to settle for a snack!

But it’s not just culture, so let’s see what happens inside our bodies during the hours of the day and of the night and how our metabolism behaves. We know that the alternation of light and dark influences our internal clock through circadian rhythms.

This clock modulates the expression of different genes in order to adapt the functioning of the body to the alternation between light and dark.

At sunset, the levels of melatonin secreted by the epiphysis increase while cortisol, which is active during the day and peaks in the morning, is inhibited.

Thanks to this inhibition of cortisol, when we go to bed our autonomic nervous system relaxes and prepares for sleep. During the night and while we sleep, leptin, the hormone that calms our sense of hunger, is activated, “turning off” ghrelin, which is instead the hormone connected to our sense of hunger.

Indeed, those with sleep disorders due to an endocrine imbalance generally tend to eat more. This is why the sleep-wake rhythm plays a fundamental role in regulating our metabolism.

Although the scientific data are not yet certain, it seems that spreading meals over time helps us to avoid accumulating fat, as does the consumption of meals over the 12 hours of day with a subsequent improvement in sleep quality. It is therefore a good idea to concentrate meals in the first part of the day, not only because of calories (we have less time to burn the calories we introduce at night) but also because, following the activity of our organs and hormones, we would be following our internal clock with obvious benefits not only for our figures but above all for our vitality and well-being.

After talking about official medicine, let's take a look at what Traditional Chinese Medicine has to say.

Traditional Chinese Medicine sees the energy flowing through our body as using real channels called meridians. Organs and innards are connected to the meridians and follow a biological clock that establishes the highest and lowest energy peak.

There are 12 zones, lasting two hours each, in which the meridian reaches its highest peak. Considering this, it then becomes important to know that the large intestine has its maximum energy peak between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and its minimum between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., while the small intestine reaches its maximum energy level between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and the minimum energy level between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.

The liver peaks between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., while the lowest energy levels are between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Even waking up during the night at a set time could be due to an energy physical issue or imbalance.

The five elements

When studying rhythms, we cannot forget that each organ has both a daily and an annual biorhythm. In the next chapters we will return to the importance of seasonality and of consuming seasonal fruit and vegetables, a choice that affects our state of well-being and health.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, each season brings with it a different type of energy and a colour (and it includes 5 seasons).

Here is a short description.

The middle season is governed by the spleen-pancreas, it has an orange colour and its characteristic is humidity. During this period it is advisable to eat foods that warm you up, like a nice pumpkin soup for example.

Spring is the time when green energy is at its highest; it is the colour of liver, and its characteristic is the wind. At this time of the year it is a good idea to lighten up and detox with dandelion, artichoke, burdock, and thistle. What better occasion for a nice raw artichoke salad seasoned naturally with extra virgin olive oil and gomasio?

We all know autumn is a bit melancholic, bringing with it the first cold (but dry) temperatures; its colour is white. At the market, stock up on leeks, onions, and turnips to make soups and creams.

Summer, on the other hand, has a very active energy. Its dominant colour is red, the colour of the heart, and everything is hot, fiery, and nature is at the peak of the yang, i.e. the maximum of its expression and activity. In this case prefer light and raw food like a watermelon salad or juicy tomatoes.

And finally, winter, where everything becomes slow, Nature hibernates and expresses the yin at the maximum. The first cold temperatures arrive and the energy is expressed by the colour black for the kidneys. During winter, it is a good idea to consume yang foods, add spices, and prefer baking as a cooking technique. Food should be served hot.

Foods of vegetable origin (such as nuts), however, have a rather neutral flavour, and as such they can be eaten with peace of mind both to maintain energy in the organ and to rebalance it.

As for other food, the law of the five elements says that there are five types of flavour and that each will act on one of the five organs present in the body, promoting its toning. From acid taste useful for the liver to bitter taste for the heart, from sweet for the spleen and stomach to spicy for the lung, all along to salty for the kidneys.

Through its flavour, each food exerts an action on the energy of the various organs. Eating only one type of food (scarce rotation) causes the corresponding organ to be overloaded and therefore to have problems in metabolizing it.

Let’s therefore remember to vary the type of food and their flavours as much as possible. Also, if we feel attraction or repulsion towards a certain flavour, let’s think about whether that might be connected to a physical, energy, or emotional imbalance.

Traditional Chinese Medicine promotes the balanced use of seeds, spices, nuts, and mushrooms, respecting their intrinsic yin yang energy. A special note goes to those who work in shifts and who, unfortunately, cannot respect many of the suggestions above. In this case, it is advisable to learn to listen to your body in order to at least follow the schedule of when the organs should rest so as not to overload them. For those who travel a lot and deal with different time zones, this imbalance should be compensated with the integration of concentrated foods, which are more yang.


Paola Di Giambattista for www.nuturally.com

Naturopath, Nutritional Cooking Consultant

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