Why finding your body’s natural sleep cycle and circadian rhythms is the key to strength, vitality and wellness.
When the alarm rings, Laura groans and hits the snooze button. She feels dead on her feet before she is even on them. As she eases out of bed, she is aware of her stiff back, sore hips, and tight neck and shoulders. She shuffles to the bathroom and, looking in the mirror, notices that her puffy eyes don’t look as clear as they once did. Her hair and skin have become dull. She heads to the kitchen for her breakfast, usually some combination of caffeine, carbs and sugar (or maybe nothing at all). As she eats her breakfast, she is assaulted with the daily TV or newspaper report of the latest tragedy or celebrity or political infight. And then the daily scramble begins in earnest — getting the kids off to school; going to work; fending off and managing emails, phone calls and work projects; fighting traffic on the commute home; dealing with children’s homework; making dinner and doing other household errands; and trying to tend to her marriage and other relationships.
She does whatever it takes to get through the day: eats sugary snacks, drinks coffee or soda, exercises, calls her therapist for an antidepressant. But none of these quick fixes lasts very long (if having any effect at all). Before she knows it, fatigue and stress overwhelm her.
Laura is so tired these days, in fact, that she can’t seem to find pleasure in things that used to energize her, such as spending time with her family and friends or going out to see a movie. Even sex feels like too much of an effort. So, she spends her evenings draped on her couch, barely awake in front of the TV or her laptop. Then, like a cruel joke, when it is time for bed, she can’t fall asleep — no matter how exhausted she feels. Underslept and overtired, she wakes up in the morning and the cycle begins again.
Laura decides to see a couple of doctors, both of whom say nothing is wrong with her and that she is just getting older and stressed out. One prescribes the latest anti-inflammatory pill; the other, a different antidepressant. Laura knows that something is not right, though, and that’s when she comes to see me.
I tell Laura that I know what this bone-weary funk is because I see it all the time.
Since I began practicing medicine in New York City in the 1980s, after practicing for many years in and around Johannesburg, South Africa, where I grew up, I started seeing an increasing number of patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s coming to me feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, depressed, achy, rundown, older than their years — and generally feeling like they were running on empty.
These patients were falling through the cracks of Western medicine because they didn’t have an obvious disease and were told it was just stress. I started calling these patients “spent” because that’s how they felt.
I put on my thinking cap to try to work out why so many of my patients were suffering. I thought about the only time I never saw patients who had these symptoms, and that was when I worked “in the bush” 30 years ago, in Kwandebele, a rural area in South Africa.
There, I certainly saw diseases symptomatic of poverty and malnutrition, but I saw none of the problems I see today in New York City. I think it has less to do with the difference in financial resources than with the difference in life rhythms.
In Kwandebele at the time, there was no electricity, indoor heating or refrigeration. People went to bed when it got dark, arose with the sun and ate whatever foods were available in season. Community, music and dance also played an integral role in bringing rhythm into their lives. In short, they lived in accordance with nature’s cycles and rhythms. They had no other choice.
I remembered a tidbit I picked up from a wildlife ranger as a child and never forgot — animals that live in the wild don’t get chronic diseases, he told me, whereas caged animals do. I also thought about what I had learned when studying Chinese medicine, that we humans are microcosms of nature and that the human body behaves according to the same natural laws that govern all living processes.
We evolved over the millennia as people who lived in harmony with day and night and the seasons. As a result, these cycles and rhythms became imprinted in our genes. Scientists know that our genes are almost identical to our ancient ancestors’. Yet, we are living at a pace and rhythm that would be completely foreign to them.
Simply put, in contrast to my patients in rural South Africa, we in the West have a hard time respecting the circadian rhythms that govern our lives.
Circadian rhythms are the various biological changes our bodies experience over a 24-hour period in response to important cues, such as whether it is day or night. Every system in the body is affected by circadian rhythms, such as brainwave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities.
Although Western medicine discovered circadian rhythms about 300 years ago, most of us fail to appreciate their power in determining our health and fitness. In Western medicine, we doctors are so locked in to our various specializations that we fail to see large-scale relationships, especially those between the body and its environment. Physicians treat specific symptoms, but many of their patients’ afflictions stem from broader patterns of asynchronous living. We get spent because our modern lifestyle has removed us from nature and we have become divorced from its cycles.
For most of us, probably the only time we become aware of body rhythms and their importance is if we have jet lag. Anyone who has flown over a few time zones knows what I am talking about. You get tired easily, feel sluggish, and you struggle to concentrate or think clearly. Your body aches, you have trouble sleeping and you may even have digestive problems.
In daily life, we get out of tempo because we continually give our bodies the wrong cues. We eat the wrong foods at the wrong times, and we are continually stressed, both emotionally and mentally. We don’t get enough natural light during the day, and we get too much artificial light around the clock, which detaches us from nature’s cadences.
Given the critical importance of sleep to restoring your daily rhythms, I am going to focus, in the tips that follow, on how to live more naturally with light — throughout the day and night — in order to get the rest you need and reset your internal clock.
Of course, I’m not recommending that we all go live in huts without electricity. I am saying, however, that if you get in touch with your body’s rhythms, little by little, you can change your life.
(For more detailed suggestions on other ways to improve your daily rhythms — through improved nutrition, appropriate exercise and relaxation techniques, and healing music — see my book, Revive: Stop Feeling Spent and Start Living Again [Touchstone, 2009].)
The process of returning to your natural genetic rhythm is not a quick fix. It involves making some profound changes with powerful, long-term consequences. If you take the suggestions one day at a time, you will soon be able to hear your own rhythm, the beat that your body and mind need to feel healthy and strong again.
A patient of mine described the experience well: She said it was as if her body were a glass of muddy water and every day we stirred it up, took out a teaspoonful, and added a teaspoon of fresh, pure water. Each day the contents became a little clearer, and, eventually, she had a glass of clean, sparkling water.