Managing Circadian Rhythms: Are You Working With or Against Your Natural Sleep Cycle?

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Anyone who’s ever Googled “Why am I so tired?” or taken a biology class has heard about circadian rhythms. They’re our bodies’ natural sleep cycles, and every animal has them!  

While those 9 to 5s may have you believe everyone functions on the same energy pattern, that’s not true. 

The good news is that once you identify your personal cycle, you can start working with it—not against it. 

Chronotypes: Your Personal Circadian Rhythm

Do you often call yourself an “early bird” or “night owl?” Well, that’s more than just a cutesy name (or an excuse to stay out late). Recognizing these patterns in yourself helps identify your chronotype, a.k.a. your personal circadian rhythm. 

There aren’t just two to choose from. According to “The Sleep Doctor,” Dr. Michael J. Breus, there are four different chronotypes: Lions, Bears, Wolves and Dolphins. (Note the lack of birds!) These categories do more than describe our sleeping schedules. Instead, they also account for distinct behavioral, biological and social patterns. 

Chronotypes might explain why you’re falling asleep at your desk mid-afternoon while your coworkers seem to be hitting their groove. Or maybe you’re an “up and at ’em” type who wakes up with the sun and conflates sleeping-in with laziness. 

Truth is: you probably just have different sleep needs. 

The Four Chronotypes

Dr. Breus named the chronotypes after mammals with similar sleep-wake schedules as the categories that bear their names. Don’t let anyone tell you that your sleeping patterns are unnatural. They fiercely exist in nature!

Here’s a bit about each of the four chronotypes. 

Lion

You know those people who’ve already gone for a run, read the newspaper, and cleaned half their house before the sun’s up? They’re probably Lions. 

These classic morning-lovers have maximum energy early in the a.m., seizing the day before it starts. Most productive before noon, Lions grow more tired as the day goes on, typically falling asleep by 10 p.m. Lions are naturally inclined towards routine and practice great self-control, so a late night with one of them is a rare event.

Bear

Around half of all adults have the Bear chronotype, which is why our society functions on their schedule. Bears’ circadian rhythms align with sunlight hours, and since it’s the dominant chronotype, people often call this a “normal” sleep-wake cycle. They’re at their best mid-day, then start slowing down near 3 p.m. and hit the hay around 11. 

Despite the world operating on “Bear time,” these folks typically don’t get adequate rest during the week and need to play catch-up during the weekend. 

Wolf

“Burning the midnight oil” was probably first said about a Wolf. The typical social schedule is brutal for these chronotypes as they’re highly susceptible to chronic social jet lag and immense sleep debt. 

Wolves function best when they awake near noon: the time when their mental clarity starts kicking in. Tiredness doesn’t set in until around midnight, but they may have an energy dip near 4 p.m. with a boost in the evening. 

Wolves tend to be creative, so you may notice your artistically-inclined friends work best later in the night. 

Dolphin

Dolphin chronotypes function opposite to regular waking hours. These light, easily-disturbed sleepers tend to be most alert at night, leaving them sleepy throughout the day. Despite this sporadic schedule, Dolphins have a productivity window within typical work hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

Related Article: The Lowdown on Intuitive Eating: What It Is and How to Do It

Why Do Chronotypes Matter?

You’re surely already familiar with your sleep tendencies, but learning more about your type can help you better understand your energy cycles. Plus, it’s easy to feel like your personal rhythm is “wrong” if it doesn’t align with those around you. 

The truth is they’re all normal. While we can’t change these genetic sleeping tendencies, we can learn how to schedule our lives around them. 

Related Article: Trouble Sleeping? Try Adding These 6 Foods to Your Diet

Using Your Sleep Cycles to Improve Your Life

Tuning into your chronotype’s natural energy waves can help you structure your life more effectively. Of course there are some things out of our control, but try implementing these strategies as best as possible. 

Lions

Lions should aim to channel that morning energy by getting their day started right away. You should complete tasks requiring more mental energy early, moving to things that don’t need as much brain power throughout the afternoon. By evening, work mode should be entirely off in favor of unwinding before an early bedtime.

Bears

Functioning on the classic 9 to 5 schedule is pretty ideal for Bears, but remember that daylight hours are their most productive time for everything, not just work, so it’s important to squeeze in other attention-demanding activities within that time frame if possible. Likewise, maximize sleep when you can to prevent sleep debt from accumulating. Still, take those weekend sleep-ins if needed!

Wolves

If a Wolf can choose their own working hours, they absolutely should. Let yourself sleep in late to take advantage of that evening creativity while still getting in your eight hours. As for everyone, your brain needs to shift from work mode to sleep mode, so don’t hit the hay right after punching out. Instead, give yourself time to unwind. However, if you’re stuck on Bear time, begin your day with low-energy tasks, moving into more demanding ones as the day goes on.

Dolphins

Although there isn’t really a perfect sleep window for Dolphins, most find midnight to 6 a.m. optimal. Start and end your day slowly while focusing your energy surge on deep tasks between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. However, since Dolphins have a notoriously sporadic sleep-wake cycle, it’s best to listen to your body. Harness focused energy when you have it, and let yourself sleep when you’re tired.

Final Thoughts

Following your natural circadian rhythm, a.k.a. chronotype, can help you schedule your life around your specific energy cycles. Optimizing your day based on peak focus levels can lead to a more productive and less frustrating life. 

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