Understanding Your Circadian Rhythm
Are you tuned into the rhythm of life? Did your alarm jar you from bed way too early? Have you greeted the past three mornings with just a little more grumbling than usual? I bet quite a few heads are nodding right now—both in agreement and in a fight against creeping fatigue! Yes, the annual ritual of Daylight Savings Time can do quite a number on us.
Your discomfort may simply signal that you are particularly attuned to the rhythms that drive life. We embrace a foundation of routine and predictability in our everyday living, but a larger pulse is at work, too. The universe is composed of countless complementary balances: the ups and downs of the tide, winter’s cold and summer’s heat, sunrise followed by sunset and then sunrise again. These cyclic rhythms continuously progress together to create a beautiful harmony that resonates through all living things.
That universal cyclic balance shows up in your body and mental operation, too. Throughout a day, humans naturally experience sharp, energized, and alert periods that gradually wane into less alert, or even drowsy times before slowly ramping back up into activity again. This is known as circadian rhythm, or the sleep/wake cycle.
But our hyper-driven, always-on culture is dismissive toward the ebbing half of that natural rhythm. Rather than flowing harmoniously with it, we attempt to control our environment by focusing on the high-energy times. Resetting our clocks is jarring because it is deliberately out of sync.
This year’s “spring forward” might have happened two days ago, but if you’re still feeling its effects, now is a perfect opportunity to look at how your approach to time, rhythm, and rest fits in with your overall wellness goals.
Sleep researchers observe that the period of lowest alertness occurs somewhere between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. for most people.
But in fact, the human body tends to run through not one but two high/low energy cycles per day. That lethargy you sometimes feel after lunch, or your inability to focus during a 2 p.m. meeting? That’s your other, lesser-known natural circadian ebb.
Bottom line: We need to rest more than we might think we do. But we’re also citizens of the modern world, and we have schedules to keep. Here are some guidelines that just may help you comfortably mesh your own personal rhythm with that of the larger world.
1. Respect your individual pattern.
The circadian high/low cycle varies from one individual to another. Some people are naturally “larks” while others are “nightingales.” Where do you fit on that continuum? Do you work best in the very early morning or not really hit your stride until closer to noon? Later, after your waking-cycle ebb, when do you naturally peak again?
It’s not always practical, but whenever possible, plan your day according to your natural rhythm. Schedule your most demanding activities for those times when you feel fully energized—and try to allow a little extra white space during those periods when you can expect your body to shift into a slower pace.
2. Make time for sleep.
It goes without saying that our bodies need sleep. But when deadlines loom, special events approach, or any unusual activity enters the picture, many of us (um, yeah, guilty over here!) have a tendency to “make time” for it by stealing from our daily allotment of rest.
Most adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night to enjoy optimal brain and body function. Please, do yourself a favor. Don’t skimp on sleep.
3. And make time for rest, too.
Sleep restores and rejuvenates your body, but sleep isn’t the only kind of rest. Pastimes that let you think in a different direction and leave you feeling refreshed allow rest for your mind and your spirit. This is the perfect kind of rest to take during that midday energy ebb.
When was the last time you rested by doing something just for yourself, just because you enjoy it? If everything on your agenda is related to work, obligation, and/or serving other people, you’re well overdue for some me-time.
4. Practice good sleep hygiene.
Make the most of your overnight circadian low by optimizing your sleep conditions. Research shows that for the most restorative sleep, you shouldn’t go straight to bed. Allow yourself a full hour of gentle wind-down before you turn in. Most people also benefit from a quiet, cool room, around 65 degrees.
Complete darkness is also a must, so be sure to cover, turn off, or remove any electronics that glow—even very low light can disrupt sleep by fooling the body into thinking dawn is breaking.
5. Give yourself good fuel.
Invigorate your body with light and energizing foods. Each meal should include lean protein and healthy fats, such as those you find in fish, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Add satisfying fiber and hydration with fruits and vegetables. Avoid meals that are overly heavy or loaded with sugar.
And please don’t try to keep running on caffeine. This stimulant can give you a charge in the short term, but research has consistently demonstrated that caffeine lingers in the bloodstream for many hours longer than we feel that initial boost—a slow-release effect that can lead to fitful sleep come bedtime.
Change is rarely easy, and a change in your daily schedule is no exception. But if you approach that adjustment from an attitude of preparedness and take care to respect the needs of your whole self—body, mind, and spirit—you CAN find your “new normal” again. Connect with me. I would love to hear how you’re doing with your transitions, big and small, and cheer with you as you find your way back to vibrant living!