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5 Ways to Beat Your Biorhythms

Here’s how to make your circadian clock work for, not against you


by Kara Baskin

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It’s no secret that eight hours of sleep boosts focus and productivity. What’s tricky is managing to actually snag enough rest when work and life gets in the way. The University of Chicago’s Dr. Kristen Knutson, a National Sleep Foundation Sleep in America Poll Scholar, says that we’re all alike when it comes to snoozing. “People’s natural rhythms show the same pattern: Alertness goes up in the morning, dips briefly in the afternoon, and declines right before bedtime,” she says. Knowing this, here’s how to align your body’s natural rhythms with a busy day.

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1. Hit the hay. Go to bed around the same time every night, the way you did as a kid. “If you’re going to bed at different times, your internal clock isn’t going to know when bedtime is. You have an internal circadian rhythm and your internal clock prepares itself for the same bedtime each night,” Knutson says. When you keep erratic hours, you confuse your body’s alarm clock.

2. Set the mood. “Dim your lights as much as possible an hour before bedtime, which cues your body to wind down,” she advises. And remember: Even light from a television or a smartphone matters, because this light suppresses the hormone melatonin, which helps control your sleep-wake cycle. So shut off Netflix and don’t put your phone by your bed. 

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3. Don’t drink. “Many people think alcohol is a sleep aid, but it’s not,” Knutson says. When office happy hours or work functions are inevitable, either abstain or realize that you’re not going to get a good night’s rest that night.

4. See the light. To stay alert during the work day, skip the caffeine. Instead, expose yourself to as much bright, natural light as possible. Fluorescent office lights don’t count. If you have a windowless office, Knutson recommends taking a ten-minute walk. Natural light is the best cue for your body to stay alert.

5. Prepare for the dip. All of us experience a natural energy dip in the early afternoon, Knutson says. Plan accordingly, and avoid scheduling important focus activities during this time. Contrary to myth, what you eat for lunch doesn’t matter.

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6. Don’t nap. As tempting as it might be to shut your door and lay your head on your desk, this will not help. “Napping could affect your sleep that night. By taking an afternoon nap, you’re removing your body’s natural nighttime ‘sleep pressure’ and could pay for it later,” Knutson says. If you’re dragging, the best solution is a full seven or eight hours at bedtime.

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