Circadian Rhythm & Blues
Let's hear it for the chemical processes that keep us up and put us down
It’s Day 4 of this little content parade on Down the Pipes, thanks to those of you who have been tuning in and sending notes all weekend. Yesterday was less prolific than I wanted to be, though I got some quality time with my siblings, just another microcosm instance of life getting in the way of creation. Still, few people on earth get me as well as my brother and sister do, so as much as I wanted to churn content here for y’all, I was busy with people I love and there’s not much to apologize for there.
Here’s the one post you missed yesterday, my own little Jenny Craig infomercial. Editorial note: The term “Delzempic” is pending trademark, Fostertalk 2023.
Down the Pipes is a reader-supported publication. Get 90 days paid access, free (or if I know you IRL, just subscribe to the free tier and I’ll comp your access)
I should also mention that I spent 4 hours watching the Squid Games Challenge series last night instead of writing, a show I did not want to like or watch because it seems about as dystopian a concept as Netflix could possibly develop, but their content algorithms are just that good. They know we like watching people have their dreams dashed, it’s the same psychological muscle that makes us gawk at car accidents. “Show me how tough someone else has it so I can feel better about how tough I have it” is a terrible justification for a show, and yet: Number 1 on Netflix. You cannot resist human nature.
Speaking of human nature, this time of year always gets me thinking about my circadian rhythm, the invisible chemical clock that sits inside all of us to some degree. Scientists aren’t still fully clued in to all the subtle mechanics, but the basic gist is that our bodies, like most of nature, behaves in predictable cycles around sleep and alertness. A circadian rhythm.
Think of it this way: If you didn’t have work or school, or a family or any of the other obligations that come with life, what time would you go to bed and what time would you wake up? Imagine there are no alarms in this scenario, this isn’t a question of choice, but rather of impulse. When does your body feel alert, and when is it ready to shut down?
I have always been more functional in the extremities of the 24 hour clock, my best hours are the ones when everyone else is generally asleep. Having spent a full year unemployed and several previous years not waking up to an alarm, I have a pretty good idea of where my rhythm falls now. It’s usually a bedtime around midnight or 1 and a wake time between 7 and 8. This has shifted earlier over the last few years as my social life has simmered upstate, I can fall asleep as early as 9:30 or 10 now, waking me up around 5am.
This comfort with the early AM hours is not particularly conducive to things like being at work on time, seeing friends with kids, or having productive weekends. On the other hand, it’s highly conducive to seeing concerts and DJs, consuming vast amounts of content, texting one other person intensely until 2am, and getting lost on the internet.
I think I’ve mentioned this here before (or if I haven’t, I should’ve), but this New York Times article about night owls pretty much changed my life. For most of my existence, my inability to sleep at night felt like an invisible weight I had to carry around all day, a subtle but persistent anxiety I just needed to accept if I was to co-exist with a world of daywalkers. It’s not like you can really fight against your natural clock in a way that satisfies, in my experience you can force yourself to function in the hours you’re less functional, but all that feels like is living off of credit cards. Your sleep debt never clears, it only generates interest with each day you caffeinate yourself before your body is ready to get cruising.
Coffee, it needs to be said, is a kinda new-ish thing for everyone. I mean not really, it’s been around for the better part of a millennia. But this idea that we all, every day, take a stimulant before we do anything else…that’s just good 20th century marketing, the same sly fucks who got you all buying diamond engagement rings, shampooing once a day, flushing toilet paper, and calling juice a fruit serving. Don’t worry, we’re not going back in on capitalism today. I’m just saying the overcaffeinated world we live in is a relatively modern one brought to you by Folgers, Keurig, and the Starbucks corporations, among others.
The modern coffee craze does line up nicely with the industrial and digital revolutions though, the need for people to work together at the same time (generally 9-5) required giving folks free coffee at work to get people’s alertness aligned, at least artificially. That’s some genius level social hacking from the gentry class, you gotta hand it to them!
But beneath all that sits your own personal rhythm. It may not align with everyone else’s; that’s actually considered an evolutionary advantage. The thinking goes that societies were able to adapt and survive better when there were people awake at all hours, which provided more production, more protection, and more genetic diversity. You can talk about all the spiritual and physical body alignment you want, but if you’re not in touch with what your body’s natural clock wants from you, I promise: Nothing else is going to feel in alignment either.
This of course, does not mean you need to quit your job and work in a nightclub just because you like to stay up late (I mean, it might…it worked for me). But at the very least, you should try and get to know what your rhythm looks like.
I recognize this may be easier said than done. Generally, I’d recommend you find a week or two where you can turn off your alarm entirely, ease off the caffeine (don’t quit cold turkey, you will have withdrawal and it’ll fuck this whole thing up, but maybe drop to a single, leisurely cup sometime once you’ve settled into your day) and just sleep when you’re tired (vacations work well for this, naps are encouraged as you normalize). Let yourself just be…try not to schedule too much either early or late in the day, don’t stick to a bed time, turn the lights off when you’re tired but resist the urge to go to bed simply to avoid “ruining your day” tomorrow.
If you want to stay up until 4, stay up until 4, though try to find something to do. Reading is a good one at those quiet, late hours. Resist the urge to feel anxiety about being up alone so late, it can feel a little maddening at first, it may even trigger some mild depressive thoughts if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t spend a lot of quiet time with themselves. Power through, try to meditate. Track your sleep each day and night, and see if you can spot a pattern shift about 3-4 days in. That’s about as quickly as your body can normalize, though it could easily take weeks or months. Sleep debt, like actual debt, can be cumulative and compounding.
Obviously if you have kids you’re just screwed, simply accept that they have their own circadian rhythms you need to nurture and support. I’m so sorry nobody explained any of this to you in any meaningful detail before you signed up for parenthood, besides the ominous “say goodbye to sleep!” You’ll get a shot when they’re out of the house to mess with this stuff, stay strong.
But if you can peel yourself away from the world of responsibility for a period of about a week, you can tinker with your own clock. Again, if nothing else, just knowing that you’re actually a morning person and not just a person who has been so heavily medicated with stimulants at 6am every day that you just think you’re a morning person is a pretty big deal. Once you know, you can probably abandon your alarm because you’ll know how many hours and and what time your body naturally works. The complex hormonal cocktail that drives you forward and knocks you out is an amazing process to be an active party to, and being able to harness it is kind of like having a super power (see also: 20 minute power naps, something I’m not great at but know folks who have it mastered).
Anyway. Long way of saying I stayed up until 2am watching Netflix because that’s what my circadian rhythm dictates. I’m warning you that most bosses are not hip to this excuse if they expect you to be sharp at 9am, but the dirty secret is there are a lot of us night owls in positions of power. We operate at a high function because the waking world forced us to adapt to their clock, but we also own the night while the rest of you are sleeping. We get more hours to get more done than everyone else, and we’re at our A game when you’re turning down.
If you’re like me, find bosses, partners, and friends like us…we’ll always have each others backs in those late, lonely hours.