Your Personal Best Seeming Out of Reach? Here’s a quicky on how tuning into your biorhythms can get you there.
There is so much to learn about how you can optimize your life to get the most out of your brain and body, it can be overwhelming. In this short Power of the Downstate primer, I’ll explain how focusing on your biorhythms as a general framework helps all the details suddenly fall into place.
Life in 2022 seems…harder than it should be. It’s common to feel pulled in a million different directions, pushing yourself to keep up professionally with peers, while feeding the black hole of need from kids and parents (Hello, Sandwich Generation!). Financial obligations for cars, houses, and college payments pill up, and we’re besieged by news reports full of crisis, terror, and danger.
Each of the aforementioned life experiences is a stressor that can activate the same stress responses in our bodies that a sabre-tooth tiger might have evoked from our long-ago forebearers. Faced with any type of acute excitement — good or bad — your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure kick into high gear, and your brain immediately re-focuses your awareness on the offending problem. This lightning-fast mobilization of a lot of energy, attention, and emotions, drains your resources. And just like the electric battery of your hybrid vehicle, you need to recharge your own battery on a daily basis — or you will eventually break down.
For the past 20 years, I’ve been studying how humans can get smarter and more emotionally regulated, and stay healthy longer through good sleep. Through my research and studying many fields of medicine and psychology, I’ve developed a theory that all living things, including you and me, are guided by natural rhythms that, like ocean waves, have two halves.
The first half, what I call the Upstate, is when we have the energy and resources to push ourselves outwards and upwards. It’s the energy-releasing crash of the wave, and, frankly, it’s the state we’re all spending way too much time in these days. You’re in the Upstate whenever you give a presentation at work or push your body to its maximum at the gym. But you’re also in it when you’re experiencing less positive types of stress: drama at work, financial worries, microaggressions, or physical danger — anything that raises your heart rate and rattles your emotions puts you in the Upstate.
The Downstate is the second half of our natural rhythm. It’s when the wave draws inward, calms your racing heart, replenishes your resources, rebuilds your organs and tissue, and takes care of all the important processes that make you human, such as having creative ideas, strengthening your memories, and processing and regulating your emotions.
The key to optimizing health, well-being and cognition is to operate in harmony with your natural rhythms and actively support both sides of this activation/restoration seesaw. To borrow from Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Action and Reaction: To every Upstate action, there is always an equal and opposite Downstate replenishment. Our health is maintained via the right amount of energy-consuming Upstates and energy-replenishing Downstates. Just like a wave that can’t keep crashing on the shore without the preparatory drawing inward, Upstates and Downstates need to be in the right ratio so that you are ready for anything.
But how and when do you Downstate? Let’s take a look at how nature, in its wisdom, has worked out an almost perfect plan to make the recovery process easy. Under normal pre-modern-world circumstances, people wouldn’t have to think about their recovery system because humans lived by the cycle of the sun: they woke when it was light and voraciously Upstated while the sun was high, and then fell into a deep Downstate sleep when it got dark.
Sleep is the optimal Downstate recovery period because it’s the only time the Upstate world can’t get to you. Your body and mind take advantage of that peace and quiet by investing in inward repair and the flushing out of toxins ; processing of emotions and memories; coming up with creative solutions to problems, synthesizing and restocking of proteins and energy. Like bears (who don’t have to remind themselves to store up weight for the winter) and birds (who don’t have to consult a map to recall which route they must fly each spring), early humans were more in touch with nature’s rhythm because they didn’t yet have ways to ignore it.
Enter the blue light of LEDs, convenience stores, parking lots, factories; the sirens call of social media, 24-hour news cycles, and smart phones; and a pharmaceutically-drenched, work-till-you-drop culture, and — Hey, presto! — we’re now living in an Upstate world way out of balance. Given the crush of life’s pressures, the first things we drop from our lives are the exact practices we so desperately need to replenish our daily resources. Like kids trading baseball cards, we swap out Downstate-encouraging activities — such as daily walks, spending time with friends, and preparing healthy meals — for more Upstate ones, such as sitting at a computer for hours on end, increasing nightcap pours, eating just-add-water fast foods, and hitting the pillow way past any recommended bedtime. And research shows this slow creep into overindulgence and sedentary living steepens as we reach and surpass age fifty.
Ss we slide into midlife, prolonging time in Upstate stress while ignoring and diminishing our Downstate needs bites back posthaste. Studies of cognitive abilities across the decades demonstrate significant loss to long-term and working memory, attention span, and brain processing speeds. Starting at age forty, we begin to lose muscle mass, which translates to a weaker, less robust body that grows more vulnerable to falling and fractures. In our fifties, our once flexible and elastic arteries that were designed to squeeze and push blood to distant tissues and cells start to stiffen, leading to increased blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease. One of the top complaints at this age is sleep disturbance, and a large longitudinal study has tied short sleep (six hours or less) in our forties and fifties to a thirty percent increase in risk for dementia thirty years later.
And though as a sleep scientist, I applaud the recent cultural shift toward considering and improving sleep, you can’t expect sleep to solve all of your problems. If you spend your day ratcheting up your stress levels e.g., cortisol, spiking your blood sugar by eating highly processed foods, sitting on your butt all day and then haphazardly pulling a nighttime workout that jacks up your heart rate, and then eating a late dinner… what do you think is going to happen when you try to get to sleep?
Taking care of your body and mind is a 24-hour job that includes working in Downstate opportunities throughout your day and night. And the fact is you can activate plenty of Downstate opportunities during the day, while you’re still awake, that can help ensure that you are living in the right ratios of Upstates and Downstates (and that will help protect your health from some of the aforementioned problems associated with old age).
What I call a “Downstate Maven,” someone who is purposefully working Downstates into their daily rhythm, begins their day with bright morning sunshine or a light box to stimulate their circadian rhythm. They get aerobic exercise in the morning and reserve strength training for the afternoon. They spend the day practicing slow, deep breathing, even at work, to avoid things like email apnea, when you open up your inbox and JUST.STOP.BREATHING. And then they limit exposure to blue light from screens and other devices after 6PM. These Mavens get at least half of their daily nutrition early in the day when metabolism and insulin levels are naturally high, and eat a small, protein-rich, early dinner. They have tons of sex (because it’s a medical fact that an orgasm a day does keep the doctors away) and/or hugs and deep conversations with loved ones, and then tuck themselves into bed by 10PM to ensure a long soak in deep sleep.
When you learn about your own rhythms and how you can naturally sync them up by simple actions throughout your day and night as well as aligning your activities with the larger rhythms of the sun and moon, you will be living in the powerband of your life. A key to understanding the power of the Downstate is that you start small, adopting one action item at a time, until you are running your Downstate on all cylinders. The Upstate/Downstate ratio is a simple and universal equation that lives within all of us — we just have to tap into its rhythm.
Dr. Sara C. Mednick is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine and author of The Power of the Downstate: Recharge Your Life Using Your Body’s Own Restorative Systems (HachetteGO) and Take a Nap! Change Your Life (Workman)