I talk about ultradian rhythms a lot. Because they matter a lot. Far more than the health media ever reflect, far more than most doctors know, and far more than most people realize.
In fact, as healthy living skills go, I would say noticing and managing your ultradian rhythms likely ranks in the top five most important things you can do for your wellbeing.
Ultradian rhythms are natural, undulating cycles of energy — oscillating patterns of energy production and recovery — that occur in people (as well as in other living things) many times throughout the day. Like circadian rhythms, but smaller.
The basics: After 90-120 minutes of sustained energy output and mental focus, the body and brain need a 15-20 minute break. Your systems use that downtime for recovery, repair, replenishment and rebalancing. After which time, they return to a high level of productivity and efficiency for another 90 to 120 minutes.
On paper, it looks like this …
If we refuse to take a break when we need one, bad things happen. The byproducts of productivity build up in our system, creating high levels of stress and fatigue.
We get groggy and distracted. Bodywide inflammation rises, immunity drops, mental capacity, metabolism and mood all suffer. We can’t think as straight, so our error rate increases and our productivity plummets.
In other words, we start getting significantly diminished returns. And the more ultradian rhythm breaks we skip, the worse the damage becomes.
Many people react to their body’s “need a break” signals by taking a coffee or cigarette break or eating sugar. While these solutions provide temporary relief (sugar and coffee work by forcing the system into a momentary energy spike; cigarettes by blunting feelings of emotional stress and reactivity), they establish unhealthy dependencies, and none of them supply the physiological recovery and repair opportunity the body and brain are really looking for. Accordingly, they don’t return the body and brain to a state of optimal function.
For that, you need an ultradian rhythm break, which I refer to as a “URB.”
So, how does one take a proper URB? According to the research (much of which has been done by the U.S. Department of Defense), the best way is to lie down, preferably in a dark, quiet room, and take a mini-nap. But you don’t have to actually nap (or even lie down) to have it count. Not even close. Reclining, sitting, leaning or moving calmly (e.g., walking, doing yoga, or tai chi) are all good options. The main thing is to free your system from stress, to let your body relax or change positions, and to let your mind wander or be calm.
Any mental and physical break, or even a shift of focus to something different and less demanding, is better than nothing. And any quality time spent taking a URB better than none.
Here are some great ways to take a URB (feel free to mix and match for a total of 15-20 minutes, or for however long you can manage):
- Hit the restroom (even if you don’t think you have to go)
- Get a drink of water or cup of tea
- Grab a healthy snack (avoid refined carbs and sugars)
- Get outside and walk calmly
- Stare into space
- Close your eyes and meditate or do deep breathing
- Sit on a curb or bench and let your mind wander for a while
- Walk around the building
- Visit with a colleague or friend
- Listen to a guided meditation or piece of calming music
- Do a little restorative yoga (shivasana is highly recommended)
- Do a mindless task, like refilling your stapler or cleaning out your purse
- Run a simple errand
- Make dinner reservations or book an oil change
- Call a loved one to say hi, or to tell them you love them
- Visualize how you want the rest of your day or evening to go
- Make a quick list of things you are grateful for
What you don’t want to do is more of whatever you’ve been doing for the past couple hours, especially if that’s looking at some kind of screen. You need a gear shift, a reboot, a change of scene.
I have done a couple of fun podcasts on ultradian rhythms recently, including “Pause,” (one of my favorite “The Living Experiment” episodes ever), and a fun one I did as a guest on Dr. Aviva Romm’s Natural MD Radio podcast, so I won’t belabor the subject here.
Just know that the more you understand and respect your own ultradian rhythms, the more capable you’ll be of getting the best from your body and mind.
Want to dig deeper into this topic? In addition to the podcasts mentioned above, I recommend “Give Yourself a Break” (a great article from Experience Life magazine) and E.L. Rossi’s book, The 20 Minute Break.
Pilar Gerasimo is a pioneering healthy-living advocate, journalist and innovator. Best known for her work as founding editor of Experience Life magazine, Pilar now co-hosts a weekly healthy-and-happiness podcast, The Living Experiment, with Whole30 cofounder Dallas Hartwig. She lives on an organic family farm in Wisconsin with her pit bull pal, Calvin.