Hitting the snooze button, downing an espresso – these habits might seem harmless, but according to experts, you might be inadvertently derailing your circadian rhythm
There are those of us who rejoice at the morning, easing out of bed filled with energy and optimism for the day ahead. Then there are others who hit the snooze button several times before making their bleary-eyed way to the kitchen to brew the strongest coffee possible.
This phenomenon has led to the long-held assumption that humans are divided into two neat, natural, and distinct categories: morning people – and everyone else.
What's your chronotype?
So are “night owls” and “early birds” a myth? Not really. There is compelling scientific evidence that proves morning and night people are actually wired differently.
A chronotype is a person’s natural genetic tendency to feel alert or sleepy at certain times of the day. If you’re more alert and productive in the morning and nod off on the sofa watching late-night Netflix, it’s likely you are an “early chronotype,” while someone who hits their stride in the late afternoon or feels most energetic at night is said to be a “late chronotype.”
Your chronotype doesn’t just affect your energy and sleepiness. It also affects your appetite, productivity and even your core body temperature – so understanding it is important.
Some experts, including psychologist Dr Michael Breus, define chronotypes into four distinct categories, while others argue that chronotypes are not binary; rather, they exist on a spectrum, with very few people falling entirely on one end or the other. But while your biological chronotype appears to be fixed and unchangeable, your circadian rhythm, on the other hand, is more fluid and adaptable.
Secrets of the Circadian Rhythm
The body’s so-called master biological clock, which effectively controls when you sleep and wake, is a natural process triggered by the release of the hormones cortisol and melatonin.
It’s a sensitive thing that thrives, unsurprisingly, on rhythm. Disruptions to it can impact not only sleep but digestion, hormones, mood and behaviour – which makes perfect sense when you think of how out of sorts you feel when you’re jet-lagged, for example.
There’s also strong evidence linking a disrupted biological clock to a greater risk of mental health conditions such as depression or bipolar, as seen in this study, published in The Lancet.
As we discover more about the nuances of the circadian rhythm, one thing is certain: sleep matters – perhaps more than we realise.
Quality sleep is essential, according to Dr. Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine, not just so we feel more alert and energised during the day, but to enhance neuroplasticity – the rewiring of connections in the brain.
Sleep is not simply a time for your brain to go offline, he says. Rather, it is the time when your brain is doing its most important work: actively constructing new synapses and improving memory retention.
It’s clear that keeping your body clock in check is important. But getting good quality shut-eye isn’t as quite as simple as heading to bed early.
There are other factors that can impact your circadian rhythm – including what you do first thing in the morning.
Why Mornings Matter
While you might have your nightly wind-down ritual down to a science (reading a book, drifting off to the scent of lavender, or indulging in a relaxing bath), few of us pay much attention to our morning routine.
As soon as we hear the sound of our alarm clocks, we’re racing to the shower, hurrying to make breakfast, or rushing to work or school. On slower mornings, we tend to hit snooze, check emails or scroll social media in bed.
These habits might seem harmless, but according to Dr. Huberman, you might be inadvertently derailing your circadian rhythm.
“What we do in the waking state determines when we fall asleep, how quickly we fall asleep, whether or not we stay asleep, and how we feel when we wake up the next day,” he says.
Dr. Huberman places particular emphasis on the first hour of the morning – a brief but highly significant window of time that he says can impact your mood and alertness throughout the day, regulate your blood sugar and metabolism – and make or break your chance of getting a good night’s sleep.
The key is cortisol
Your circadian rhythm is governed by cortisol, which Dr. Huberman likens to a “rising tide” that energises and activates the body near dawn.
"Cortisol sets off a timer in your nervous system that dictates when a different hormone, called melatonin, which makes you sleepy, will be secreted," he explains. To master sleep, optimise your energy and productivity during the day, and even improve your mental health, he adds, it is “very important that the pulse of cortisol arrives early in the day."
With expertise in women’s health, hormones and endocrinology, Dr. Carrie Jones, is another medical expert who waxes lyrical on the importance of balancing the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR), a natural process where cortisol is released in excess for approximately 30-40 minutes after waking before tapering off throughout the day.
If you struggle with anxiety or find that your stress levels peak first thing in the morning, it could be due to chronically high levels of cortisol, which keeps your body in a constant “fight or flight” state, leading to anxiety, inflammation, disrupted sleep, and burnout.
Difficulty extracting yourself from bed in the morning is also a sign of cortisol imbalance, she adds.
“I always ask: How long does it take you to feel fully awake in the morning? If it’s longer than 45 minutes and requires caffeine, your CAR is probably not that healthy.”
Cultivating the Perfect Morning Ritual
So what, according to the experts, should we be doing in the morning to balance our CAR and set our circadian rhythm on track?
Rest and relaxation are key to restoring healthy cortisol levels, so some of the morning activities Dr. Jones recommends for her clients include “breathing exercises right away, any kind of vagal nerve stimulation, humming, singing, cold shower, cold water splashes on [the] face.”
Huberman also has some simple recommendations of his own, which range from maintaining a regular bedtime and wake-up time to directly observing natural sunlight shortly after waking up.
Eager to optimise your mornings? Here's 7 expert-backed practices to try:
Get some sunlight in your eyes
In the morning, rise and shine – literally.
“Light is what we call the primary Zeitgeber, the time giver,” says Dr. Huberman.
"Getting sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning is absolutely vital to mental and physical health."
"Getting sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning is absolutely vital to mental and physical health. It is perhaps the most important thing that any and all of us can and should do in order to promote metabolic wellbeing, positive function of your hormone system and get your mental health steering in the right direction."
Being outdoors and seeing low solar angle light in the morning activates neurons in the eyes that convey to the brain that it is daytime, thereby ‘setting the clock’ and setting in motion"a huge number of biological cascades," explains Dr. Huberman.
Indirect sunlight viewing should ideally be done outside during a walk without wearing sunglasses and not through glass, he recommends, both of which can filter out UV light.
If it's the middle of winter and natural sunlight isn't possible, you can also think about buying a full-spectrum light box suggests Dr. Jones. These clever devices beams out full-spectrum fluorescent light, which can help to regulate and "retrain" your CAR.
Go for a walk
As well as basking in the sunshine, going for a morning walk can soothe both the body and the mind, aided by a process known as optic flow – when visual images pass by our eyes.
"Optic flow has a powerful effect on the nervous system," explains Dr. Huberman. "The effect it has is essentially to quiet or reduce the amount of activity in the brain structure called the amygdala – part of the network in the brain that generates feelings of fear, threat and anxiety."
A walk is ideal, but even biking or running can generate "optic flow that can lower activity in the amygdala and therefore anxiety," he says.
Don't hit snooze
It can be tempting to hit snooze, especially on weekends, but this is almost unanimously considered to be a bad idea.
That’s because just as your alarm is about to go off, you are cycling through the end of your final, deep, restorative REM (rapid eye movement) sleep state. When you hit snooze, you immediately plunge back into another REM cycle, only to be jolted out of it in the middle with no time to adjust. It’s no wonder you wake from your snooze alarm feeling even more exhausted.
"By hitting snooze over and over, you essentially train your body into this habit"
"By hitting snooze over and over, you essentially train your body into this habit," adds Dr. Jones, so try to break it once and for all.
Avoid "reactive" habits
Even the smaller, seemingly innocuous morning habits can be problematic for cortisol.
Studies have increasingly shown that “reactive” behaviour – such as immediately reaching for our phone to check emails or downing a double espresso – can send stress levels soaring, undoing all the positive benefits gained from sleep and disrupting our chance of getting quality sleep at all.
If you can't resist your phone, try placing it another room or away from your bedside table. And as for that morning coffee, here's a short explanation on why Dr. Huberman suggests delaying it – just for an hour or two – to keep stress in check.
Diffuse some essential oils
Diffusing essential oils is another simple, convenient (not to mention beautifully fragrant) morning wellness practice to dial down morning stress.
Aromatherapy has received plenty of attention from integrative medical professionals in recent years with natural compounds found in essential oils like lavender, bergamot and vetiver improving symptoms of stress, sleep issues and anxiety – in some cases comparable to prescribed pharmaceuticals.
Studies on patchouli found that it can significantly ease stress, calming the body’s “fight or flight” stress response by an impressive 40 percent, while ylang-ylang can reduce blood pressure and slow the heart rate.
Try breathwork or meditation
If you're prone to anxiety, breathwork or meditation can also be effective calming the morning cortisol spike.
“Breathwork and meditation are amazing to reduce anxiety in the morning,” says Dr Jones. “If you wake up anxious and in a sympathetic or fight or flight response, the goal is to move you into the opposite response, known as the parasympathetic or rest, digest, heal, and repair. Breathwork and meditation can be a tool for this switch."
Meditation won’t solve all your problems, but it can help you approach each day with more clarity and purpose. Here are seven guided exercises that may help calm your mind, transport you to a happier place and leave you feeling energized. https://t.co/slsIOfY4DV— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 31, 2022
Breathwork and meditation help to activate the vagus nerve, Dr. Jones explains, which is the big nerve that travels from the brain all the way down to our intestines and primarily activates that parasympathetic calming response.
"They also help to slow our heart rate, which can be quite elevated in an anxious response triggering more anxiety. Breathwork can shift our CO2/oxygen ratio helping us not to not hyperventilate, feel dizzy, and worsen anxiety.”
If you're a newbie to breathwork and meditation, here's some tips on how to get started.
Take five minutes to journal
Journaling and the latter concept of gratitude also have remarkable stress-busting benefits and the good news is, it doesn't take long to see results.
In one famous study conducted by psychologists Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough at the University of Miami, three groups of volunteers were asked to write a short list each week detailing their irritations or reasons to be cheerful. After only 10 weeks, those who jotted down what they were grateful for already felt happier and more positive about life.
Any old notebook will do, but you can grab yourself a journal by media-savvy brands such as Intelligent Change, creators of the much-loved Five Minute Journal, or Therapy Notebooks, who incorporate psychologist-reviewed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques into their journals.
Consistent, quality sleep is the foundation of a productive, happy and healthy life.
Mornings matter too – not just for balancing the circadian rhythm, but for aiding alertness, productivity and overall wellbeing.
No matter your chronotype, or your circadian rhythm, engaging in calming practices for the first hour of your day can alleviate the body’s stress response and set you on track to optimising both day and night.
IMAGE by Agata Dimmich