Dancing with Our Natural Circadian Bio-Rhythms

I am a big believer in working with one’s body and its natural bio-cycles, genes, physiology, etc., as well as the biorhythms of nature in general. I am using “bio-cycles” here as a broad category of natural biologically-driven cycles, including, but not limited to, our daily circadian and ultradian, the subject of today’s blog, female minstrel, developmental, aging, Kreb’s citric acid cycle (from biochemistry), cell division, etc. And, more from Nature, the daily diurnal light-dark cycle, the yearly cycle of the seasons and months, lunar, solar, the nitrogen, carbon and other elemental cycles, ecosystems, and so forth. As I write in my Guru book, Turquoise Woman is my archetypal symbol for these cycles in her role as Navaho’s, Changing Woman.

We have two types of natural bio-rhythms I wand to address: circadian and ultradian (see figure below). Circadian refers our 24-hr wake-sleep cycle. Ultradian refers to the 90-120 minute rest-activity cycles that we go through within our circadian cycles. In this post, I am focusing on the circadian cycle, In a later blog, I will write about ultradian cycles, which are also very important.

This post was inspired in one of my early morning awakening periods and my recurrent question of, “instead of fighting it, how can I work with it,” which goes back to my Guru story’s vision quest’s ending of “how do I dance with it?”

For decades I have had what is known as Early Morning Awakening: no matter what time I go to bed, I awake somewhere usually around 3:00a.m. I have tried all kinds of ways to deal with this, including melatonin and many other informed recommendations, but not medications, prescribed or OTC’s. I wanted to find a more natural way to work with this issue.

On top of this, is that as we age, we need less sleep. For years (decades), I wake up after sleeping for five hours. Very aggravating! With only five hours sleep, I feel sleep deprived and drag through my day with low energy. With six hours sleep, I feel pretty okay. With seven hours, I feel great! Usually, I just lay there trying to go back to sleep, or, more accurately, hope that I will go back to sleep, often giving up and getting up around 6:00a.m. My body’s circadian cycle is from about 3:00a.m. to 3:00p.m., and I want to come back to this below.

I compensate for lack of sleep, and also just to take rests when I feel tired, or in between projects, or, actually, any excuse for 20-minute power naps. I’ve done the power nap thing ever since I got out of graduate school back in the Stone Age (1975). And, no, skipping the naps doesn’t effect the five-hour/early morning awakenings. That is, except of Sundays when I often take a longer nap, especially after a long bike ride. These longer naps sometimes can affect my ability to get to sleep, which is countered by the intense exercise I got that day. Sundays are kind of my days off. I usually do a lot of cooking on Sunday’s too.

My natural circadian rhythm is from 3:00am-3:00pm. My cycle is common for day-owls. Plus, I am an early morning person. I do my best writing, thinking, creativity, etc. in the early mornings. By 10:00am, I can feel my efficiency at these dropping off. By around 3:00pm, it is like the bottom drops out of my energy level. I grow tired and more fuzzy-thinking. This is when I try to turn my attention and efforts into doing more mindless type of activities, e.g. house or shop cleaning, bringing in firewood in the winter, or going for a walk with the dogs or a bicycle ride, etc.

At about 3:00am for us “normal” people, our body/brain starts making the transition from its sleep cycle to its wake cycle. At about 3:00 pm it shifts to making the transition for our upcoming sleep cycle.

Unfortunately, when I wake up around 3:00a.m., my mind starts cranking up. The downside of it cranking up is that I jump from topic to topic. The upside is that it is often a very creative period. I come up some of better ideas during this time–like this morning. It is sort of the “Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. The “Good” is the creativity that often comes up. The “Bad” is feeling sleep deprived if I don’t get enough sleep. The “Ugly” is that this is also often my Shadow time.

The increased creativity is related to the underlying brain waves and increased access to my right-brain (read, right cerebral hemishpere) creative processes.

As I lay there, it is often in an in-between place between not being fully awake, but also not being asleep. If I manage to doze back off during this period, I can go into some pretty vivid dream states as I go into the R.E.M. (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep. This, however, is not the deeper, restful, delta brainwave level of sleep.

The five types of brain waves, in order of decreasing frequency (i.e., how rapid the brain waves are, form faster to slower is: gamma (most rapid), beta, alpha, theta, and delta (slowest). See table below.

Brain WaveFrequecy
(cycles per second)
gamma35-100very fastproblem solving, thinking, intensely focused
beta14-25rhythmic, irregularmentally awake and alert
alpha8-13very rhythmic, high amplitudemeditation, hypnosis, entering or leaving sleep
theta4-7irregularearly REM sleep
delta≤ 4high amplitudedeep sleep

Shadow Time, the Ugly, refers to my Jungian Shadow complex. In short, Shadow is those negative parts of ourselves our Ego tries to suppress, ignore, and/or deny. For me, that is Bandido and his sidekick dragon, named Chaos, that I write about in my new Guru book. Chaos is my fears and anxieties that come up. Often I come awake with a spike of anxiety/fear: the dragon, she is awake!

As I swim through my near dreamworld in the early morning awakenings and face Shadow and the fear/anxiety, I try to call in my rational left-brain (i.e., my linear, more logical left cerebral hemisphere) to counter. For example, this is where/when I remember mindfulness and focus my attention on my relaxing my body and my breath as it goes in and out. This is where/when I remind myself that the high negative emotions are just emotions, and that they are impermanent. They will come up, and they will go down. I remind myself to not get attached to them, to just let them be there and focus on my breath and relaxing my body.

I also might call into play my experience and training as a mental health therapist, remembering to reframe the thoughts, feelings, etc. into a more rational framework. For example, the glass is half full/half empty: I focus on it being half full, not the half empty. Standard CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) techniques.

Other ways I try work with my early morning awakenings is to get up and journal, have a cup of mint tea, or milk and cookies, and sometimes read. These are for when I feel like I haven’t had enough sleep yet and hope to be able to get back to sleep. If I feel rested, and especially, if my creativity is really going, I do like I did this morning and get up and start writing.

The moral of my story here is for each of us to find the best way to work with our natural wake-sleep cycle–ones that don’t involve drugs or medication. Not to fight our cycles, but to work with them. That is, in Strong Eagle’s words from my Guru book, “To dance with them.”

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Nikko

    Hi Darrell,

    I’m researching the circadian rhythm for a book I am writing about beating burnout and came across your post on LinkedIn. I was wondering if you have tried making your sleep environment colder (and possibly your afternoon environment warmer, to mimic the natural rise and fall of daytime/nighttime temperatures)—this is recommended for improving circadian rhythmicity and I thought it might be a low-risk experiment for bringing your rhythm closer to the natural day.


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