Timing is Everything – How to Lean into Your Body Clock for Better Health
by Catherine Morris | January 7, 2021, updated 11 months ago
When people talk about the biological clock it's usually in reference to reproduction, and if you're a woman over the age of 30 you're probably sick of the phrase. Your internal clock doesn’t really have anything to do with your reproductive decision making, rather, it’s natural human-software that sends you thousands of unconscious signals a day, telling you what to do, and when to do it.
Wouldn’t it be something if you could learn to recognize these cues, adjust them, and ultimately work with your biological clock to achieve optimal health outcomes? Yeah, it would, and you can.
The aforementioned human-software is known as ultradian rhythms. While the better-known circadian rhythm describes one cycle per day, ultradian rhythms are recurrent biological cycles that take place throughout a 24 hour period. They can last minutes or hours and govern our heartbeat, circulation, breathing, body temperature, hormonal surges, and pretty much every busy biological back and forth we have.
Feel sluggish in the mid-afternoon? That's your cortisol dipping. Sleepy an hour after dinner? Your melatonin is kicking in.
Using Your Ultradian Rhythm to Achieve Peak Health
Our ultradian rhythms are a major aspect of the human operating system, but that doesn't mean we can't play around with them a little.
Your ultradian rhythms respond to cues, such as whether it's light or dark outside. Tweaking these cues can help your body perform better. Learning your rhythms, planning for the highs and lows, and working with your ultradian cycles rather than against them, can help you fine-tune your life in impactful ways.
Planning for productivity
As Dolly Parton once famously sang, a normal workday is '9 to 5'—which are standard work hours for so many of us—but working in an eight-hour chunk isn't ideal. Do any of us really spend all that time focused and attentive? The honest answer is no. We take breaks (or we should), have lunch, spend time chatting with colleagues. All perfectly normal and necessary, because humans aren't wired for eight-hour shifts.
We cycle between periods of alertness and inattention throughout the day. Researchers have noted that most adults can only sustain 90-120 minutes of intense focus before they need 20 minutes of rest and recovery.
When your internal switch is flipped to the 'on' position for those 90-120 minutes, your brainwave activity increases, your heart rate goes up and your hormones surge giving you a blast of energy to go with that sharpened focus. When your 120 minutes are up, everything starts to recede and, if you don't take your 20 minutes of downtime, you'll burn out. Intense focus requires adequate rest if you're going to perform at your peak.
Most of us are working from home right now, which means it's the ideal time to start tracking your productivity cycles. The only way to find what truly works for your day is to keep track.
You might not be able to maintain your concentration for the full 120 minutes. Perhaps you work better with a 90 minutes on, 30 minutes off ratio. Perhaps a 100 minutes to 20 minutes split is more your speed. Keep a journal by your desk clock and mark down when your mind starts to wander, and after a few days, you should see a pattern emerge.
Once you can identify if you're in the zone, you can anticipate when you'll need a rest. This will help you plan for big meetings, online conferences, and other events where you want to be at your best.
Creativity on the clock
If you work in a creative field, timing is crucial, because you don't just want to be productive, you also want to be inspired. Creativity is more than cognition and concentration, and studies show that it's actually better for our brains to be tired if we want to ignite our imaginations.
It seems counter-intuitive, but the research indicates that leaving your creativity and problem-solving tasks until a time when you're groggy and tired, could actually yield better results than scheduling them for when you're most alert. So take that conference call after your morning coffee, but leave any brainstorming until late afternoon.
Mood and behaviour
Thinking, memory, creativity and problem-solving all have their peaks and troughs in the 24 hour cycle, so it should come as no surprise to learn that your mood operates similarly throughout the day.
In fact, one study suggested that our baseline mood subtly, but regularly, changes throughout the day (going up and down roughly every four hours) with the most obvious swings typically occurring during the afternoon and evening period.
Researchers noted that mood is also highly susceptible to external factors. Your emotional state isn't automatic, it's strongly affected by things like your diet, the weather, big life events, and so on.
Tweaking Your Eating
One of the primary functions of our ultradian and circadian rhythms is to get us through the demands of the day. Our body has to make sure there's energy available when we need it, and fuel to keep all our systems operational throughout the day.
Work too hard and you'll find yourself stressed and exhausted. What happens then? We reach for sugary foods for a quick jolt and we succumb to temptation when comfort food cravings hit. If you know your ultradian rhythms, you know when to take breaks and avoid burnout which makes it easier to plan around snack attacks.
Insulin, the hormone we produce after eating, is the body's prompt. It tells the cells that we're eating, which must mean it’s time for activity. That's why disrupted eating patterns—when shift workers have a meal in the middle of the night, for example—can be so harmful to our health. It's also why it's important to eat at mealtimes when you take a long-haul flight. Research shows that adjusting your eating window in this way can help prevent or reduce jet lag.
Eating when you're supposed to be resting isn't ideal, but what about not eating when you're active? Intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating seems to have wide-ranging benefits, and is fast becoming a useful tool for anyone looking to lose weight, get their insulin resistance under control, treat disease, or simply live healthier.
Restricting your eating to a certain window—say 8 or 12 hours—and fasting outside of that helps the body rest and digest, and more closely mirrors our ancestral eating patterns, according to fasting enthusiasts. It also helps your body switch from burning carbs (sugars) to burning fat, promoting healthy weight loss.
It's impossible to overestimate how important sleep is for our health. In fact, one of the earliest areas of study for ultradian research was sleep, specifically the REM cycle. For details on sleep patterns, check out the article linked above on sleep.
Go long enough without adequate sleep and your mental and physical health suffer, making you more prone to depression, neurological disease, and chronic illness. The good news is that you can hack your sleep in much the same way as you can track your productivity—figure out the patterns.
Our natural sleep patterns are somewhat dependent on genetics, which may explain why your spouse is can’t make it to bed before midnight, but you’re crawling under the covers at 10pm. The National Sleep Foundation says that, if you can keep your bedtime between the hours of 8pm and midnight, you stand a good chance of getting your full 8 hours, and your full complement of sleep cycles.
The most important thing is to listen to your body's signals. Our sleepy hormone, melatonin, naturally starts flowing at dusk and begins ebbing at daybreak, so if you're paying attention you'll find yourself winding down at those times.
We're surrounded by things and habits that disrupt our melatonin production—heavy meals late at night, staring at blue-light emitting screens, too much caffeine—so figure out your triggers and limit them as you can.
Living in Rhythm
As the demands of modern life increase we’re getting more creative at finding ways to ignore what our bodies are telling us.
We drink endless amounts of coffee, because we didn’t sleep. We reach for candy because we need to power through the afternoon dip, or require comfort. We stay up too late because it's the only time we get to ourselves.
Our bodies know best. They know we can only sustain our energy, focus, and health for only a short while before we need to rest and recover. Keep cutting those rests, and you'll find yourself rocketing towards burnout.
“Stress and burnout are on the rise. We're burning the candle at both ends, and not getting a break. It's a constant slow burn [and] we can go for years before we realise we're at our limit. Stress causes so many illnesses. We have to learn to do things differently, we have to adjust our idea of self-care.”
If you feel like you're not honouring your rhythms, and you’re headed for burnout, there are options to help you manage your responsibilities without sacrificing your health. Speak with a life coach who can help you prioritize and organize your schedule more effectively, or consult a therapist or counsellor if you feel your stress is out of control.
Meditation coaches can help you unwind, and dietitians can guide you towards better eating patterns and habits. Your health is made up of many components, and those come together when you're working with your body’s rhythms, instead of against them.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.