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Cycles are everywhere in nature: the sun, the moon, the tides, the weather, the seasons. Plants and animals follow these rhythms, adjusting their eating and behavior patterns accordingly.

Humans are more likely to ignore or even fight the natural cycles that govern our bodies. We pull all-nighters instead of going to sleep when it gets dark; we go south in the winter instead of adapting to darkness and cold.

These responses make sense for our linear lifestyles, but they come at a cost. For physical and mental health, respecting natural cycles really does matter.

Our bodies are sensitive to three natural rhythms: ultradian, circadian, and infradian. And working with instead of against them can make a difference in our well-being.

Ultradian Rhythms

These short cycles are the easiest to overlook, but they affect our daily lives more than the others because they happen with greater frequency. Consider your workday: Do you really stay focused and productive for eight to 10 hours? We doubt it.

We’ve become so tied to clock time that we tend to ignore the microrhythms in our bodies. Our brains can sustain an intense focus for only about 90 minutes, at which point our attention wanders and our energy drops. If we push on, we’re likely to miss how we’re starting to get spacey and make mistakes.

This is when we often turn to sugar or caffeine for a quick, artificial boost. But what our bodies really need is a pause, just for 20 minutes or so. This is a time to rest, move, or eat a healthy snack.

Other refreshers might include a brief meditation or chat with a friend — anything that gives the brain a break can help us return to our tasks with renewed focus.

During the workday, we recommend thinking about managing your energy rather than managing your time. Consider this a mindfulness practice: You learn to notice when you’re starting to fade, and then you honor what your body needs.

Circadian Rhythms

Of all bodily systems governed by 24-hour circadian rhythms, sleep is the most obvious. Respecting this cycle and ensuring we develop a regular sleep schedule is the best way to stabilize mood. Research has shown that when people coping with depression and sleep problems treat both at once, they greatly improve their chances of recovery from depression.

Our endocrine systems are also responsive to circadian rhythms. In a well-regulated body, the stress hormone cortisol rises and falls over a 24-hour period. It declines in the evening, allowing us to enjoy our deepest sleep.

Around 3 a.m., cortisol typically starts to rise, preparing us to wake up. Cortisol continues to rise until about 8 a.m., when many of us are most focused, then slowly drops off throughout the remainder of the day and evening. This pattern gives us energy in the morning and allows us to unwind in the evening.

Pushing through these natural dips in energy causes the adrenal glands to stop listening to signals from the brain, and the normal rhythm of cortisol is disrupted — it either stays elevated, causing anxiety, or flatlines, leading to exhaustion.

This scenario is sometimes called adrenal fatigue. The best way to avoid this type of burnout is to honor circadian rhythms by protecting sleep.

One easy way to do this is by respecting light and dark cycles — exposing yourself to bright light earlier in the day and dimming the lights at night. Because artificial light lets us override signals from nature, we believe it may be part of the reason mental health problems have increased over the last century.

Infradian Rhythms

Infradian rhythms are any natural cycle lasting longer than 24 hours. These offer a powerful organizing principle for our bodies. Menstruation is one example. This monthly cycle involves time-sensitive symptoms such as changes in mood and increased need for sleep. These cycles may even work in concert with cycles of the moon. The evidence on this isn’t definitive, but many notice a connection.

A lot of women find their menstrual cycles less stressful when they pay attention to the rhythm of their symptoms, especially if they document them. This practice helps reveal the pattern behind what can feel like random occurrences. If a dark cloud of depression descends, a journal can confirm the same thing happened last month, at nearly the same time.

Such attunement can help release any judgment of one’s body; these ups and downs are signs of an infradian rhythm in good working order. Everything happens in time.

In partnership with:

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 Listen to the Joy Lab podcast.

This article originally appeared as “Align With Nature” in the July/August 2024 issue of Experience Life.

Henry
Henry Emmons, MD and Aimee Prasek, PhD

Henry Emmons, MD, is an integrative psychiatrist and cofounder of NaturalMentalHealth.com. He is the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. Aimee Prasek, PhD, is an integrative-therapies researcher and CEO of Natural Mental Health.

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