Feel the Rhythm: Biological Cycles and How They Work For or Against Your Mental Health

Just like the changing of the seasons, our bodies function through a series of biological rhythms and cycles. Three of them are the circadian rhythm, the ultradian rhythm, and the infradian rhythm. Most people have heard of circadian rhythms, which is the regulation of our sleep/wake cycles. What is less well known is the powerful and direct correlation it has to our mental health. This pattern determines when we go to bed and when we wake up. Our pineal and adrenal glands release melatonin and cortisol in a rhythmic pattern that is in sync with the light and dark cycles of the day, ideally.

However, we have begun to be more and more out of sync with these innate rhythms. Bipolar, depression, pain, insomnia, stress, and PTSD all reflect disruptions of the circadian rhythm. Our reliance on caffeine, sugar, blue light-emitting devices, and our busy schedules all contribute to disturbances in this sleep-wake cycle.

Make your ZZZ’s work for you

The best ways to help start to realign your circadian rhythm is through consistent sleep and wake times, 7-8 hours apart (ideally with bedtimes between 1030 and 11 pm), reducing our exposure to blue light from TVs, tablets, and phones or wearing blue light blocking glasses, and reducing our sugar and caffeine consumption, particularly after 3 pm.

Blue light blocking glasses are one of my favorite things. When the evening rolls around, I always put on my blue light glasses for at least an hour before bed. Blue light stimulates the production of serotonin, a wakefulness neurotransmitter.

Get happier and more productive at work

Our brains and bodies are not static machines. Each system has a flow and a rhythm that allows for optimal functioning depending on the biological, physical, or mental task at hand. Another less well-known cycle is the ultradian rhythm – the hemispheric cycles of the brain.

Do you notice throughout your workday, you are sometimes able to focus and perform tasks flawlessly? Other times you can’t seem to string two sentences together? Our modern style of focusing both in the workplace and in the education system does not accurately reflect our brain’s natural pattern of learning and task completion.

Instead, the brain shifts hemispheres from left to right in 90-120 minute cycles. Signs of shifting may include: feeling “antsy,” yawning, feeling spacey, etc. The left side of our brain is responsible for logic, linguistics, and task completion. The right side of the brain is responsible for creativity, distinguishing visual shapes and patterns, as well as emotional processing.

By identifying these shifts, we can optimize our work life and tailor our days to be more enjoyable as well as enter the brains “flow state” where we reach our pinnacle in creation and completion. During left hemispheric dominance, answer emails or knock off a few things off your to-do list. During right hemispheric dominance, take a walk, brainstorm for your next big project, or write that content you’ve been putting off. Structuring your day in this way helps to reframe beliefs about cognition, focus, and work/life balance.

Getting and staying well all year long

Infradian rhythms are rhythms that last for longer than 24 hours. Infradian rhythms are the longest rhythms, followed by circadian that follow a 24-hour schedule, and ultradian rhythms that shift several times throughout the day. Women experience infradian rhythms in regards to their cycle phases, the follicular, ovulation, the luteal, and menstrual phases. Each hormonal state requires different support. Learning the rhythm of these phases can help women maximize their energy and wellbeing.

Additionally, the seasonal changes that affect one’s mood are considered an infradian rhythm. Due to differences in light, temperature, and day length, melatonin and cortisol production is either increased or decreased. These seasonal shifts can contribute to seasonal affective disorder. Our ancestors once knew how to shift their life with the changing of the seasons. The spring months were for new beginnings, goal setting, and connecting with others. Summer was a time of growth, expansiveness, and busier longer days. Fall was a time of harvest, reflection, and preparation, and winter was a time of solitude, reflection, and contemplation – preparation for rebirth. By being conscious of the changing of seasons externally and our internal shifts, we can more quickly ground into our experience and make meaning out of the different states that we pass through. We are not intended to be static, unchanging beings but be in touch with our dynamic, fluid nature.

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