Changing the rhythms of life

The ‘natural’ daily rhythm of our bodies is said to be close to 25 hours. But since our lives require a daily routine that corresponds to the clock and not our bodies, we are thus slightly out of sync with the rotation of the Earth, with each passing day increasing the disparity, resulting in things like sleeping extra on our days off from work or school in an effort to make up for it.

I am someone who likes to have a routine, to do things roughly at the same time each day. I like to get up each day knowing what I will be doing that day and when, down to what I will wear and what I will eat at each meal. It helps that I buy multiple shirts and trousers in a style that I like and wear very similar clothes each day so that I do not have to bother with making decisions about what to wear, so much so that my daughter once said that my students must think that I have very few clothes. Although this sounds obsessive when I write it down, what it does is actually free me from thinking about all those things because I am doing them more or less automatically. Doing pretty much the same thing each day frees me from having to make a whole host of minor decisions.

When I was working, a certain routine was necessarily imposed on me by the work environment. There was a set time to get up at 7:00, get dressed, leave for work at around 8:00, have lunch around noon, get back in the evening at around 6:30, eat dinner soon after, and then go to bed at around 10:30. I fell into such a routine that when I retired, I pretty much kept the same routine initially, except that I got up at 8:00 and, after the same light breakfast as before, went to my study at 8:30 to begin writing. I would stop for lunch at about noon.

The catch was that I found it hard to get back into the rhythm of writing after lunch and felt dissatisfied with the limited number of hours available in the morning and the consequent lower writing output. So I decided to keep writing until I got tired or hungry. I found that I could go on until around 3:00pm so I started having a full meal for lunch only then. But since lunch was so late and so filling, I did not feel the necessity for an evening meal, and ended up just eating a slice of toast or some fruit at around 10:00pm, before going to sleep at around 11:30 or later.

This new routine is working very well for me and seems to correspond to my ‘natural’ rhythm of daily life, if such a thing should exist.

One thing I have noticed is that I sleep more hours at night now than before, at least eight and usually closer to nine. This seems to go against studies that suggest that we sleep less as we age.

It’s a known fact that as we age, we sleep less. But the reasoning behind this phenomenon is poorly understood. Do older adults sleep less because they need less sleep, or because they simply can’t get the sleep they need?

In a review out today in the journal Neuron, a group of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley argue the latter—that because of certain brain mechanisms that change as we age, we are unable to get a necessary amount of sleep. Researchers say this knowledge not only gives them a platform to develop medication to target this problem, but also a means to implement therapies already available that can treat these issues.

I also read studies that suggest that the microbes in out gut have a daily routine too and that modern life that produced electricity that shifted people’s daily rhythm away from a sunlight-based one may be harmful.

New research is beginning to show that the composition and activity of the microbiota exhibits a daily, or circadian, rhythmicity, just like we do. This offers one pathway to explain a Pandora’s box of possible adverse health effects from aspects of modern life, such as eating late at night or too much electric light after sunset.

The crucial question is whether the microbes simply respond to their host human’s circadian rhythm or whether they can actually alter our rhythm somehow. And does this really matter anyway?

A root cause of these human health issues we see on the macro scale may be our gut microbiota and whether or not it is happy.

So are my own gut microbes pleased with my new daily rhythm or are they ticked off and plotting revenge somewhere deep inside me? Who knows? But I am ignoring those studies since with this new routine, I do not find it hard to fall asleep and feel rested when I get up, counter to what the conventional wisdom says. This new pattern seems to work well for me and I am going to stick to it.

And for the weakest of segues, here is Sammy Davis Jr. singing the big production number The Rhythm of Life from the 1969 film Sweet Charity. It gives a glimpse of the clothes, language, and lifestyle of the hippie culture of the time. I particularly like the line where Davis, playing a character named Big Daddy, sings about his ‘calling’ to start a new religion:

And the voice said, “Daddy, there’s a million pigeons
Ready to be hooked on new religions.
Hit the road, Daddy, leave your common-law wife.
Spread the religion of the rhythm of life.”

That holds true today too as can be seen by the proliferation of cult-like religious leaders able to find new pigeons to fleece.


  1. says

    If left to my own devices I invariably adopt a sleep pattern that looks like 8hr from 3am to 11am and 5pm to 7pm. I bet I could write a fad health book about it and make a ton of money.

  2. djlactin says

    The diel cycle of ca. 25 h is real, but unstable. I have experienced both phenomena.

    While I was writing my thesis, I had no anchors to reality (no social life, lived in a little dimly-lit shithole under the stairs). I fell into a 26-hour cycle. Awake at X o’clock, go to the U, work until Y o’clock, return to my cave, sleep, wake up at (X+2) o’clock, go to the U, work until Y+2 o’clock. Over a period of about 2 weeks I would cycle from being diurnal to being nocturnal and back again. My colleagues were often awestuck that I would sometimes come into the university at 4 am, until one of the professors noted that I was not coming in early, I was coming in late. Heh.
    However, another event happened. Perhaps I overstated my isolation. I also played on a softball team that met at a fixed time every few days.Because one of my teammates was a smokin’ hot fountain of estrogen, I would haul my ass out of bed to play, regardless of the time. After one such event, my diel cycle was eradicated. I’d be awake for 6 hours, sleep for 4, awake for 16, sleep for 7, awake for 4, sleep for 19. Incidentally, I read a paper that showed why: we have a diurnality controller, and if we are struck with sunlight at the right (wrong?) time, our diel cycle is totally disrupted.
    So Mano: experiment; maybe you’ll have some diel fun.

  3. Mano Singham says


    Yes, I recall that fun ad. The only problem with it is that the image it gives of evolution is wrong, in that it traces the ancestry of each person back in time as three distinct lineages.

    But at least it shows evolution.

  4. Owlmirror says

    @Mano: Oh, it’s much worse than that; it depicts humans as “evolving” from lineages that are not actually ancestral (chimpanzees are cousins, not ancestors), and mostly are not even closely related to humans, or in most cases, to each other (flying lemurs, ichthyosaurs(?), some kind of ray-finned fish, birds, some sort of small non-avian dinosaurs, burrowing salamanders (?), some other reptiles(?), and finally ending up with (or starting off from) mudskippers (also ray-finned fish)).

    It’s closer to viewing all of life as a ladder rather than a branching tree. Or maybe the three friends are supposed to be reincarnating into different organisms as life evolves, in their millions-of-years quest for a good drink? I don’t know; I’m probably overthinking it.

  5. Eric Riley says

    “But since our lives require a daily routine that corresponds to the clock and not our bodies, we are thus slightly out of sync with the rotation of the Earth”

    A ‘clock day’ is 24 hours, and was chosen to match a ‘solar day’, where the rotation of the earth brings the sun back to the same (roughly) position in the sky. A sidereal day (when a different star is used) is about 4 minutes less. I am unaware of any context in which the rotation of the earth is 25 hours.

    On a side note -- I was the winter-over communications technician at Amundsen-Scott station in ’98. My schedule was to the sidereal clock since I had to be on shift to ensure the antennas were properly tracking the satellites used to send back data (and download email and porn). In practice, I just shifted my sleep schedule by half an hour each week. Some of the science staff would free-cycle (without sun reference, sleep cycles can get way out of whack with that ’25-hour’ figure).

    While in the army, I worked a rotating shift -- 8 hours -- shifting from days to swings to mids every 10 days (for about a year, then we went to 12 hours, swapping every 8 days). I would hate to do that now, but I think that people have a lot more variation and many can adjust to some fairly radical schedules -- regardless of what might be ‘natural’, and without having any particular health issues from it.

  6. DonDueed says

    All this just provides more support to my theory (which is mine) that everything is bad for you, and will eventually kill you. So far there have been some dozens of billions of confirming experiments, with seven billion more in progress.

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