Have you ever noticed that there are certain times when you prefer to do certain things — and that those preferences don’t necessarily align with others’ around you? You like to hit the ground running first thing in the morning, while your partner takes his time to shake off sleep. You sleep straight through the night, while your best friend is constantly complaining about restless sleep.
What is the reason for these variations in behavior and how do they impact our health?
According to Michael J. Breus, PhD, a board-certified sleep specialist, author, and a member of the clinical advisory board of The Doctor Oz Show, the body’s internal biological clock holds the answer.
In his new book “The Power of When,” Dr. Breus explores just how your body’s internal biological clock can point you toward the best times to do just about everything. We spoke with Dr. Breus to see just how much our body’s internal biological clock impacts our health, sleep and weight.
Below is the edited conversation.
The link between your health and your biological clock
In general, variations in activity or behavior are expressions of your body’s powerful biological clock. These variations are conventionally grouped into only three categories, known as chronotypes. There are the early birds, who prefer mornings, the hummingbirds, who have an in-between preference, and the night owls, who prefer evenings.
My clinical experience has led me to a different conclusion. I have come to recognize a fourth chronotype, one that’s typically overlooked and often misunderstood: the restless sleeper, or the insomniac.
I have created four archetypes (using fellow mammals, not birds), to represent these four distinct chronotypes:
Lions are morning types. Bears are middle of the road types. Wolves are nighttime types. Dolphins are difficult sleepers.
To unlock the power of when and use your body’s bio time to guide you, first must know your chronotype. Discover your individual chronotype here. Before you take the chronotype quiz, learn about how your chronotype and how to use your biological clock.
Help your body fight disease with bio time
Like every other system in your body, your immune system is strongly influenced by bio rhythms. Scientists have made exciting breakthroughs in recent years in linking bio time of the immune system. We’re learning more all the time about the ways you can use bio time to help your body fight illness and disease.
The immune-override rhythm
Thanks to recent scientific research, we now know that the immune system is most active at night. Sleep is a critical time for healing— especially the first third of the night’s sleep. That’s when we spend the most time in slow-wave sleep, a stage of sleep during which the body engages in intense physical restoration.
The immune system’s white blood cells are its front line defense against infection, bacteria, inflammation, and malignancy. Scientists have recently discovered that white blood cells can become active at any time—regardless of bio time — in response to a threat.
This discovery is hoped to help usher in a new and improved class of immunotherapy drugs, which fight illness and disease by activating the body’s own defenses.
The sleep duration and sleep disruption rhythms
Sleep is essential to fully powering the immune system. You need both sufficient amounts of and high-quality sleep to support and protect immune function.
The sleep duration rhythm involves the amount of sleep you get nightly. Research shows that insufficient sleep makes us more susceptible to minor illnesses, such as colds. One recent study found that people who slept six hours a night were significantly more likely to get a cold virus than those who slept seven. One single hour made the difference between staying healthy and being down and out with a cold.
Poor quality sleep—sleep that’s restless, interrupted, out of sync with bio time — may be even more dangerous to health.
Recent research conducted in mice shows that tumor growth is accelerated under conditions of fragmented sleep. Scientists attributed the accelerated growth to compromised immune function.
Paying attention to the sleep duration and sleep disruption rhythms is about more than feeling energized and rested — it’s about keeping the body’s defenses primed to protect your health and your life.
The best time to fight illness? For every chronotype, the answer is overnight. Getting enough high-quality rest is as important a health strategy as quitting smoking, exercising regularly, and eating healthy. Try for seven hours nightly.
Dolphins: 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Lions: 10:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. Bears: 11:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. Wolves: 12:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.
Best time to take your medicine
I often ask my patients: when do you take your medication? The typical answer is, “Once a day,” or “Two times a day.”
For most of my patients — and most people in general — the timing of their dosage is rarely a consideration. Most medication is taken at times of convenience — when a person remembers or when it is easiest.
In talking to their patients, doctors have long used this “take once a day model,” leaving the specific timing of dosage unaddressed.
The truth is, that the timing of taking medication can have a big impact on how well that medicine works.
The dosing rhythm
There is powerful evidence that shows the body responds differently to medication depending on the time of day it is ingested. This is the case for common medications taken by millions of people every day. Studies have proven that certain drugs are more effective at certain times. For example:
- Aspirin: For heart attack survivors taking aspirin, their dose is more effective at reducing platelet activity when taken at night. Daily aspirin is also easier on the stomach when taken in a nighttime dosage.
- Statins: Research found that statin medication is more effective at reducing lipids when taken before bed. (Cholesterol is produced in greater quantities during the overnight hours.)
- Blood pressure medication: Blood pressure fluctuates according to bio time—it rises in the morning, and falls somewhat overnight. In people with high blood pressure, their pressure doesn’t drop at night. When taken at night, high blood pressure medication is 33 percent more effective at reducing risks heart attack and stroke, compared to a morning dose, according to research.
To better boost the effectiveness of your medications, talk to your doctor about the best times to take your medicine.
Many physicians are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of timing in medication dosage, while others are still operating in the “once a day” mindset.
If your physician is aware of the scientific research, he or she can guide you to the best times for daily dosage—if not, then you may initially be the guide, directing their attention toward the new, proven bio-time driven ways to improve the effectiveness of medication.
How your biological clock impacts your weigh
Stepping on the scale is no simple matter for many people who are trying to lose weight or to keep weight off.
People often feel dread and anxiety as they step on the scale. Will the answer make them feel proud and excited? Or will it leave them feeling dejected and defeated?
Working with the body’s bio time can turn this often tortured and emotionally unproductive relationship with the scale into a healthy one—a relationship where the scale is a tool you use in tending to your health.
The low-point rhythm
For all chronotypes the low point of weight in the day is right after waking, after emptying the bladder, before eating or drinking.
Weight typically fluctuates by 3-5 pounds throughout the day, depending on what you eat and drink, whether you’ve had a bowel movement, and whether you’ve exercised.
Resist the temptation to weigh yourself after working out—you’ll likely have lost water weight, and the number on the scale may be artificially low.
The habituation rhythm
I recommend people trying to lose weight weigh themselves every day. Some weight loss experts suggest other routines, but here’s why I think daily weigh-ins are beneficial: they take advantage of the habituation rhythm. For many people, the act of weighing themselves is emotionally laden.
A daily weighing routine can help people detach emotionally, and start to use the scale as an effective tool.
The number — which used to trigger a flood of emotions, whether positive or negative — becomes a data point, not a measure of self-worth.
The best time to weigh yourself? For all chronotypes, it’s first thing in the morning, after urinating, before eating or drinking.
Dolphins: 6:30 a.m. daily Lions: 5:30 a.m. daily Bears: 7 a.m. daily Wolves: 7:30 a.m. daily
Get in Sync with your therapist
I’m a psychologist who specializes in sleep medicine. Most of my work is devoted to changing people’s sleep habits in order to help them sleep better. This frequently involves talking about emotional issues.
Whether you’re facing a short-term crisis or grappling with more prolonged challenges, I urge anyone who is struggling emotionally to seek the help of a therapist.
The life satisfaction rhythm
Some chronotypes are more likely to need therapy than others. Science has demonstrated that when it comes to mood and happiness, certain chronotypes fall higher and lower on the life-satisfaction rhythm.
There is a strong body of research that links morning preference with high life satisfaction, and also links evening preference with lower life satisfaction.
Lions tend to be happiest in their feelings about their lives, health, and outlook on the future. They also tend to have the most stable personalities of all chronotypes.
Wolves are especially vulnerable to mood swings, and also to addiction. They tend to be less happy than other chronotypes about their lives, health and outlook on the future.
Lions don’t sail through life without emotional struggles, and Wolves aren’t all besieged with mental health conditions and addictions. But nighttime types are more prone to emotional and psychological challenges that may benefit from therapy.
The insomnia/depression rhythm
There are deep links between insomnia and depression. The two conditions frequently go together and reinforce one another. Dolphins tend to suffer from chronic insomnia most frequently and acutely.
A therapeutic technique known as CBT-I (cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia) is highly effective in treating insomnia. As research shows, CBT-I also can alleviate depression.
The emotional intelligence rhythm
Emotional intelligence involves understanding emotional circumstances (emotional clarity), the ability to listen (emotional attention), and being able to find solutions (emotional repair). Different chronotypes fall in different places along this rhythm.
Bears and Wolves tend to listen better than Lions.
Bears, however, fall below other chronotypes in emotional clarity and emotional repair, according to research.
Bears tend to want to keep things on a steady. They’re not as apt to examine emotions deeply or to root around in search of solutions. They may express some resistance to therapy.
The compatibility and scheduling rhythms
Bio time can help you choose a therapist you’re more likely to connect with— and to arrange a meeting time that suits your energy and alertness rhythms.
When it comes to compatibility, I suggest that people seek out therapists who share their bio rhythms.
Lions and Bears are most alert mid-morning and early afternoon. Dolphins and Wolves are most alert later in the day. How will you know? Ask. Inquire about your potential therapist’s energy and alertness patterns throughout a typical day, and see how they align with your own. This is part of the process of selecting the right clinician for you.
With comparable alertness rhythms, you and your therapist can then select the best time for you to meet. The most effective times to engage in therapy are when you (and your therapist) are at peak alertness.
That’s when your brain will be primed to handle the kind of analytical thinking you’ll want to do in your session. Off-peak times may be when emotions related to your sessions surface; you can discuss these experiences with your therapist in session.
For all chronotypes, the worst time for a therapy session is when your alertness is off-peak.
The best time to see a therapist:
Dolphins: 4-6 p.m. Lions: 7 a.m. to noon Bears: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wolves: 5-8 p.m.
We live in a time of amazing technological and scientific innovation in the fields of health and medicine, with remarkable advances that are changing— and saving — lives.
Using bio time to protect your health costs nothing, and is entirely within your hands. Your biological clock is a powerful tool to help protect your life, ward off illness, and improve mental and physical well being.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, is a board-certified sleep specialist. His book, “The Power of When,” explores how to use your body’s bio time to improve your health, happiness, productivity, and relationships.