Life

Here's our 24-hour guide to help improve your health and wellbeing

Pressing the snooze button, jumping into the shower, then grabbing a coffee may how many of us start the day but it isn't the best way. We outline a daily timeline for better health

Rise and shine – 7am is, more or less, the time our internal clock tells body and mind they're good to go for the day ahead
Fiona MacRae

7AM: GET UP, BRUSH TEETH

DURING the small hours, as we sleep, the body is busy preparing for the day ahead. Levels of the hormone cortisol rise, which leads to an increase in heart rate and the release of glucose into the bloodstream for energy and a boost in alertness.

These changes are orchestrated by the body clock, the internal 24-hour clock that controls everything from our sleep pattern to our appetite. By about 7am, both body and brain should be prepared for the day ahead – making it the perfect time to wake up and brush your teeth.

"I brush my teeth as soon as I get out of bed in the morning," says Dr Ben Atkins, a dentist and president of the dental charity Oral Health Foundation.

You may well have been taught to brush twice daily – after breakfast and before going to bed – but doing so straight after breakfast is not the best time because acidity from food and drink can soften the enamel, the hard outer layer that protects teeth from decay. Dr Atkins warns that brushing at this point can wear away the enamel.

7.30AM: HAVE A DESSERT

For breakfast, consider having a sweet treat. It might seem odd, but dieters who did just that found it easier to maintain their slimline shape, according to a 2012 study by Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Around 200 volunteers were split into two groups and put on a strict low-calorie diet for four months. They all consumed the same calories overall, but one group had a dessert-type food such as chocolate, biscuits or cake as part of their breakfast, while the others had a low-carb meal.

Both groups lost the same amount of weight, but, after another four months, when they had more freedom over their meal choices, the dessert eaters were still losing weight, while the others put the pounds back on.

Having a dessert first thing is thought to lower levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, so you feel less hungry throughout the day, reported the researchers in the journal Steroids. It also seems to reduce cravings for sugary foods later in the day, when the metabolism is slower.

Studies also suggest that a sweet treat early on prevents the afternoon dip in the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, which is responsible for cravings for sugary food later in the day.

8.30AM: GO TO THE LOO

Our bowel movements are governed by our body clock, and, after slowing down overnight (stopping us waking up for the loo), they usually need to be emptied by around 8.30am.

Healthy bowel movement frequency can range from three times a day every day, to once a day three times a week, says Julie Thompson of the charity Guts UK.

But when you've got to go, you've got to go. This is because holding in stools can lead to water in them being reabsorbed into the body – making the stool harder and leading to constipation.

Ensuring you have had breakfast, however small, at the right time, will keep you regular. This is because eating first thing stimulates the gastrocolic response – a natural reflex that encourages movement in the bowel.

Peter Whorwell, a professor of medicine and gastroenterology, at the University of Manchester says: "The gastrocolic response is active only in the morning, typically within three hours of waking, so if you skip breakfast you might not get this reflex again that day which can gradually lead to constipation."

9AM: FIRST COFFEE

Tempting as it is to have a coffee as soon as you wake up, scientists suggest waiting for an hour or two. This is because there is an early morning surge in the hormone cortisol, to increase alertness, so you get a greater ‘buzz' from the caffeine in your coffee if you wait a little, says James Goodwin, a visiting professor in physiology at Loughborough University.

11.30AM: GET OUTDOORS

Morning light is linked to leanness. People who have most of their exposure to daylight before noon have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who go outdoors later in the day, regardless of how much they eat or exercise, a 2014 study found. The US researchers said the effect is due to light's ability to calibrate our body clock, which helps regulate levels of leptin and other appetite hormones – and, therefore, how hungry we feel. If it is out of sync, we are more likely to eat at the wrong times, which affects how we process sugar and fat and, over time, our weight.

Phyllis Zee, a professor of neurology from Northwestern University in Chicago, who led the 2014 study, said: "If a person doesn't get sufficient light at the appropriate time of day, it could desynchronise their internal body clock, which is known to alter metabolism and lead to weight gain."

Since it is difficult to get the required level of light indoors, she recommends going outside before noon – 11.30am at the latest – for 20-30 minutes, and to do this most days.

2PM: LAST COFFEE

It may only be a few hours since your first coffee, but experts say the one with your lunch should be your last. The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an independent group of scientists and policy experts, which debated the latest scientific research on sleep, recommends that the over-50s avoid caffeine "after lunch".

Professor Goodwin, a founder member of the GCBH, says it is good advice, whatever your age. He explains that it takes six hours for half of the caffeine in a cup of coffee to clear from the body.

"Not drinking coffee after 2pm is a safe way to reduce the risk of a bad night's sleep caused by caffeine consumption," he says – advice which is particularly pertinent as we get older because the body's processing of caffeine, like many other bodily processes, seems to slow down with age.

4PM: TAKE HEART PILLS

If you are prescribed diuretic tablets for high blood pressure or heart failure, try to have your last one by now, to avoid needing the loo during the night. Diuretic pills increase the amount of salt and water lost by the body, as a build-up in the blood vessels can raise blood pressure. But as a result, they make you urinate more.

Patients are advised to take their pill in the morning – and that any second dose, is taken by mid-afternoon, to avoid extra trips to the loo at night.

5PM: STRENGTH EXERCISES

Afternoon and evening exercise sessions build more muscle – important for strength, mobility and balance – than exercise at other times of the day, research shows. Doing squats, leg presses and common strength-building exercises with weights between 5pm and 7pm builds the quadriceps (muscles that bend and straighten the knee) more quickly than early morning sessions, a 2009 study from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland found.

6PM: EAT EVENING MEAL

An early evening meal could have benefits ranging from reduced heartburn to a lower risk of cancer. According to a study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in 2005, people who eat dinner within three hours of going to bed are seven times more likely to experience heartburn than those who wait four hours before turning in.

Heartburn is often worse in bed because it is easier for the acid to flow back up the oesophagus when lying down, but also the extra hour may give the food, which stimulates production of the acid, time to leave the stomach. Freed from indigestion, slumber should be sounder.

7.30PM: MEET FRIENDS

There's something ‘magical' about meeting friends after dark, says Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford. A survey he did in 2017 shows we'd rather catch up with friends and family at dinner, than lunch. Plus, an analysis of telephone data he did in 2014 revealed that our phone calls get longer, the later they are.

He says our preference for evening socialising harks back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who bonded in the evenings around the campfire – and it could have health benefits.

Socialising triggers the release of the brain chemical dopamine, which lifts mood, and raises levels of endorphins, brain chemicals that lower heart rate and make us feel calm and relaxed.

9.30PM: HAVE A SHOWER

Showering around an hour before bedtime could help you sleep better. The theory is that not only does a warm shower – or bath – help us relax, it also, perhaps surprisingly, given that it initially warms us up, reduces core body temperature, which helps us nod off more quickly and sleep more soundly.

A University of Texas analysis last year concluded that a water temperature of 40C to 42.4C produces the best-quality slumber, and, scheduled one to two hours before going to bed, it can hasten the onset of sleep by 10 minutes, reported the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews.

Taking a warm bath or shower is thought to speed up the pre-bed drop in temperature because it brings blood to the surface of the body, from where heat can be radiated out.

10PM: SWITCH OFF PHONE

We are told that ‘blue' light emitted from screens keeps us awake if used in the evenings, as this wavelength of light disrupts our body clocks.

But while blue light does affect light receptors in the eye that are key to setting the body clock, the impact on sleep should be small, says Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford.

A 2014 Harvard University study, which compared how long people took to fall asleep after reading an e-book or printed book, found the difference was just 10 minutes' longer after using the e-book, which is ‘biologically meaningless', says Professor Foster.

However, late-night use of phones, computers and other screens keeps the brain mentally active, which can stop us drifting off. To give the mind time to wind down, Prof Foster advises turning off all electronic devices, including TVs and smartphones, 30 minutes before bed.

10.20PM: DEODORANT (AND SOCKS)

Antiperspirant may be more effective when applied before bed. A study of 60 women, cited in the journal The Dermatologist in 2009, found that those who put on the product at night for 10 days sweated less overall than those who used it in the mornings. Antiperspirant works by clogging pores in the outer layer of skin, reducing the amount of sweat that can reach the surface. Putting it on at night gives it time to ‘set' in these pores while we are sleep, allowing it to last for hours upon waking.

Bed socks, meanwhile, help us fall asleep more quickly by tricking the body into cooling down. When feet are cold, the body produces heat to warm them up; this also warms up the body as a whole. Popping on socks removes this need and allows the body temperature to drop, which is necessary to fall asleep.

Meanwhile, cotton and linen pyjamas are better than man-made fabrics such as polyester at wicking away sweat, which is also important for temperature regulation, says Neil Stanley, an independent sleep expert.

10.25PM: TAKE YOUR ASPIRIN

Taken daily by millions on the advice of their doctors to cut the risk of clots that can cause a heart attack or stroke, low-dose aspirin may be most effective if taken at night.

Aspirin prevents clots by making it harder for platelets, tiny particles in blood that make it clot, from clumping together. Platelets are most active in the morning, which is also the peak time for heart attacks.

A 2013 study from Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands found taking aspirin at bedtime reduced platelet activity more significantly than in the morning – possibly as it gives it time to head off the morning surge in platelet activity.

10.30PM: SET ALARM

Using an alarm can improve our sleep because waking at the same time each day helps reduce daytime tiredness and keeps our body clocks in check.

But be realistic about the time you'll get up, says Neil Stanley.

"If you rely on an alarm, then set it for the latest possible moment. The alarm is designed to startle you and will cause spikes in your heart rate and blood pressure, which causes stress and is the wrong way to start the day.

"It's far better you get additional, unbroken sleep than needlessly startle yourself by pressing the snooze button three times."

Meanwhile, going to bed at 10.30pm gives you time to unwind, nod off and get the seven to eight hours of sleep that most of us need before waking up at 7am.

© Solo dmg media

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