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Circadian Rhythm and Productivity

'We are programmed to live our lives in accordance with the rhythm of our solar system.'

WE ALL WANT to be at our best at work. Generally, we all think we know what we need to achieve that: healthy food, exercise, stress control, and adequate sleep. But there’s another, lesser known, and vital factor in top performance: living in harmony with our inborn rhythms!

We are programmed to live our lives in accordance with the rhythm of our solar system. We all have a daily rhythms––known as the Circadian Rhythm––which are actually hardwired into our genes, and evolved to improve our chances for survival. Our research into the Circadian Rhythm shows that humans evolved to exist almost like two entirely different creatures: a day creature and a night creature. By day, we are hungry and metabolically active; by night, we are hibernal: our digestive tracts are resting and our immune system is entirely transformed. At night, our blood pressures and temperatures drop and blood flow to our brains increases. A whole host of functions differ between night and day, to allow our bodies time both to work and to rejuvenate.

Understanding our inborn rhythms and the fact that they are immutable is key to optimizing our health and our working productivity. Approximately one third of the genes in our bodies are clock genes that set our rhythmic beat, and the others work in accordance with those time-setting genes, to optimize all we do. All hormones, for example, correspond with the 24-hour day. First thing in the morning when we awaken, the hormone cortisol is at its peak and at night, it drops to its lowest level. Testosterone and estrogen are highest in the first half of the day. Insulin is also timed. Recognizing that our hormones, those amazing chemical messengers of our bodies, ebb and flow through the day, helps us to recognize that indeed, timing is everything!

So how can we live in such a way as to make sure we are productive, and that we work at peak performance? First of all, nighttime shift workers should think seriously of alternative work options. Unfortunately, we live in a world which never rests and many of us end up working during the night. But shift work is never a healthy option and studies show that those of us doing such work suffer significantly higher rates of all sorts of medical problems, from diabetes to heart disease, develop more psychiatric problems, and have a higher incidence of cancer. When it simply is not possible to find alternative work, nighttime workers should sleep wearing a sleep mask in pitch darkness, eat just two healthy, large meals daily, at fixed 12-hour intervals, and try to keep the exact same rhythm each day of the week, even on days off.

For those of us working during the day, there are definite things we can do to be maximally productive. First, pay attention to your body: as in all things, there is some individual variation when it comes to how our daily rhythms ebb and flow. Some of us feel more or less energy at different times of the day, for example. As a general rule, most people experience an afternoon slump and studies have shown that brief naps of just 10 minutes can energize you and improve performance for the next few hours. In fact, some companies, like Google, have created nap spaces exactly for this purpose. Longer naps, meanwhile, particularly those extending beyond 30 minutes, have a longer reawakening phase before optimal cognition and function is reached, but after that point, function is vastly improved. For most of us, however, very short, re-energizing, 10- to 15- minute naps are the preferred choice.

Strenuous physical activity and taxing mental feats are best done in the mornings, while the easier and less stressful tasks of the day should be left until the afternoon. Eating a hearty breakfast of healthy whole grains, vegetables, fats, and protein is the best start to the day from a metabolic and cognitive perspective. Avoid the temptation to snack during the day and eat a light lunch of mainly healthy fats, such as nuts, olives, and avocado. In the early evening, eat a dinner with lots of vegetables. And feel free to drink some organic coffee––some data now shows it improves cognitive performance––but beware of the effect it has on sleep! As for sleep itself, go to sleep by 11 PM at the latest and get seven to eight hours of sleep.

Our daily Circadian Rhythm is not an optional extra. It relates to our entire being and controls every function of our bodies! If we are to be both optimally healthy and optimally functioning at work, it’s crucial to understand this. Peak work performance demands we acknowledge the presence of our clock genes and then live in accordance with their “rules.” We are what we are: living creatures programmed by the 24-hour rotation of our planet. When we live in tune with the beat of our clocks, health, happiness, and workplace success are more easily achieved!

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