How to Avoid Mental Burnout

13 ways to re-sync your natural rhythms.
The sleep-wake cycle has a pattern, like the ocean’s tides and the moon’s phases.  Photography: Barrett Harvey

By Dr. Frank Lipman

In these pressure-cooker times, with so many people feeling over-stressed and under-slept, is it any wonder that depression, burnout and chronic illness are considered routine costs of getting through life? With every corner we cut, in the way we eat, rest and move, we push ourselves further away from the natural rhythms that should be guiding our daily lives. And we think we can get away with it. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t work that way.

Our bodies are designed to thrive on balance and predictability. When we’re living in sync with our internal rhythms cued by the rhythms of the natural world—sunrise, sunset, the changing of the seasons—we’re on our way to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness. When we ignore those rhythms, or constantly fight to override them, we compromise our health. So, how to re-sync your body with natural rhythms for optimal health? Consider the following:

Keep an eye on your master clock.

In the brain’s hypothalamus, there is something called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is, in effect, the body’s master clock. Over the course of the 24-hour day, the eyes’ retinas register light and dark and send that information to the master clock, effectively setting it. In turn, it sends signals to the other clocks in the body that regulate digestion, the immune system, the release of hormones and so on. The natural rhythm of light and dark entrains the body to do what it should at the right time. The more tuned-in we are, the better for the entire physiology. But what throws a body’s rhythms off? One of the biggies is poor sleep habits: staying up too late (especially in front of glowing screens); keeping irregular hours; taking frequent jet lag-inducing long flights.

Good rhythm helps you sleep at night.

The body’s most fundamental rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle. The body readies itself for sleep each night by producing the hormone melatonin, which relaxes the muscles and-makes us drowsy. Maximum melatonin production happens when your eyes can’t see any light, even behind the eyelids, which is why a completely dark bedroom and/or an eye mask is essential for high-quality sleep.

Even the small amount of light from a laptop or a phone can disrupt the body’s production of melatonin, which is why you want to keep all electronics out of the bedroom. When you spend late nights in front of bright screens, melatonin production doesn’t get started early enough. The blue light from the screen tells your body it’s daytime, so no need for melatonin yet. Jet lag is a similar problem. The exposure to light and dark when you’re crossing multiple time zones in a plane throws off the body’s internal sense of time—and poor, disrupted sleep is the almost inevitable result.

Melatonin also happens to be one of the body’s most powerful antioxidants, magnifying the effectiveness of other antioxidants, so short-changing yourself with poor sleep habits comes with a raft of serious consequences for your weight, energy levels and overall health. We’ve all heard people say things like “Who’s got time to sleep?” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” But it’s no joke. Poor sleep habits can lead to the development of a number of chronic ills like diabetes (type 2), depression, obesity and cardiovascular disease—so cleaning up your sleep act should be job No. 1 for anyone looking to upgrade their health.

If your master clock is off-track, your metabolism will be too.

Acting in concert with the rhythms of nature, our hormones often work in a yin-and-yang fashion. Just as lower light levels trigger the release of melatonin that slows us down, higher-intensity light stimulates the production of cortisol, an energy hormone that helps us get out of bed in the morning. Or take another example. Our metabolism works most efficiently when we eat most of our calories during the day and avoid late-night munching, so by the time bedtime rolls around, the hormone insulin has already done its work converting the food you eat into energy. Then when we’re asleep, insulin, as well as cortisol, drop to their lowest levels, setting the stage for the body to secrete growth hormone, which repairs and regenerates tissues. It’s a tightly choreographed dance, set to the rhythm of light and dark.

Being out of sync can mess with your sex life, among other things.

Not, ahem, in the mood? An out-of-sync body clock probably isn’t helping. Animal studies suggest that clock disruption may affect sex hormones. Wild animals are particularly vulnerable to the disruptions caused by human-made artificial light. According to an article published by Environmental Health News, light pollution causes hatchling sea turtles to lose their way from the beach to the ocean, and disorients monarch butterflies searching for migration routes. In field experiments, Atlantic salmon swim at odd times, and frogs stop mating under skies glowing from football stadium lights. Millions of birds die from collisions with brightly lit communication towers, and migratory flocks are confused by signals gone awry. Of course, we are animals too. If turtles, salmons, frogs and birds suffer when their internal rhythms are disrupted by modern life, you can bet we do, too.

Reset your clock by respecting your natural rhythms.

Instead of fighting nature, retrain your body to work with it. I’m not saying that we all need to live without electric lights at night, but I am asking you to be more conscious of tuning in to what your body needs to support health. The good news is that it’s relatively easy to re-sync your body’s master clock. Here are rhythm-respecting habits you can start working on today for a healthier tomorrow:

1| Try to get some exposure to bright, natural light during the day—every day. A daily blast of sunshine, particularly the morning sun, has a rhythm-regulating effect.

2| Eat light and on the early side, so your body’s not working overtime trying to digest a heavy meal when it should be winding down and preparing for bed.

3| Ease into the evening with relaxing rituals, like meditation, restorative yoga, a hot bath before bed, or any calming, soothing activity to help you unwind from the day.

4| Avoid fluorescent light, especially at night—it disrupts your body’s biological clock.

5| Go to sleep at the same time each night, and wake up at the same time each morning.

6| If you’re short on sleep one day, try to return to your normal bedtime and wake-time as soon as possible, rather than sleeping late or taking a nap.

7| Observe an “electronic sundown”: Avoid all electronic devices for at least two hours before bedtime. If you wish to read in bed, go old-school and read a (paper) book or magazine in lower light.

8| Hold the sugar. Actually, you should avoid it all the time, but particularly before bed, when sweet treats can have an energizing effect, revving you up when you should be powering down.

9| Get hard workouts done earlier in the day. Sure, a walk after dinner is fine, but many people find that more strenuous workouts in the evenings can boost energy levels too close to bedtime.

10| Keep electronic devices out of the bedroom, including your phone (or, set the phone to airplane mode while you sleep).

11| Keep your bedroom as dark as possible, since any amount of light disrupts melatonin production.

12| If you’re jumping time zones, try taking some melatonin when it would be night at your destination, and getting some daylight in the morning of your new location. If you can tolerate coffee, have some when it is morning in your new destination, so you feel awake and alert. Try your best to get onto a regular schedule in your new time zone as soon as possible.

13| If your body needs more encouragement in the rhythm department, consider the Re-Timer, a light-therapy device that helps your body adjust to your preferred sleep time.