Life in Rhythm: The Biological Calendars By Which We Live and Thrive
"The rhythm of life is intricate, but orderly, tenacious but fragile. To keep that in mind is to build they key to survival." - Shirley Hufstedler
Today we’re talking about biological rhythms, those things that govern our bodies and keep us ticking along in pace with the rest of the world. We’ll talk about the types of rhythms, how they interact, and what makes a woman’s rhythmic experience so different from a man’s.
When Did We All Get So Tired and Lonely?
Millions of women all over the world are searching for balance, fulfillment, and healing. There is a sense that things are not as they should be, that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we live our lives, that we are out of balance. Even those who follow a daily routine are likely experiencing some sort of disconnect from life as they feel it should be.
Our go, go, go culture, with its cubicles, smart phones, street lights, and schedules has a lot to do with the sense of loneliness and fatigue that’s so pervasive in modern society. This is because, as it turns out, these things that are meant to keep us on task, connected to the world, safe, and orderly, are very often at odds with what Mother Nature has provided to keep us healthy and happy.
The Rhythms of Life
Let’s take a dive into the biology of our rhythms and see if we can figure out how to live more balanced, fulfilling lives.
Women have three types of rhythms that govern their biology: infradian, circadian, and ultradian.
Infradian rhythms are those that take more than 24 hours to complete. Examples of this in nature include hibernation, Seasonal Affective Disorder (the winter blues) and of course, menstruation. 1
The menstrual cycle is nature’s most well-known infradian rhythm, so much so that sometimes it’s simply referred to as a woman’s infradian cycle.
- The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle for life’s activities that nearly all creatures adhere to. Our body clocks are hard-wired to follow a 24-hour loop and to prompt us to do certain activities within that schedule, such as eating, sleeping, etc. 1, 2
Case studies have shown that, even when deprived of natural daylight and any form of time-telling device for months on end, human bodies stick pretty closely to a 24-hour schedule. 2
- Ultradian rhythms are those that complete a cycle in less than 24 hours. Examples of this type of rhythm include our sleep cycles of REM and non-REM sleep, our heart rate, blinking rate, bowel activity, eating patterns, and more. 1
The Waking Rest-Activity Cycle is an ultradian rhythm that you’ve probably heard of, though maybe in not so many words. It’s the basic principle that our brains get fatigued after short bouts of work and that taking breaks regularly throughout the day can help to keep us refreshed and thinking clearly. 3
Check out this article from Better Humans to learn more about the Waking Rest-Activity Cycle so you work better while still leaving time for your favorite phone games.
Who's Running This Show and Why Is it Such a Mess?
Each of these bodily rhythms is governed by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SN), that is, the part of the brain that runs the body clock. 4
The SN has many rhythms to keep track of, and since each rhythm has its own agenda, sometimes they interfere with each other. This means that our bodies are constantly trying to find the right balance between all the individual rhythms happening at once. 4
For men, the rhythmic sweet spot is much easier to hit than it is for women. You see, men don’t have a monthly cycle, so their entire set of rhythms runs on a clock of 24 hours or less. If they can nail down a daily schedule that works for them, then they’re golden.
Not so for women, oh no. We have all the rhythms they have, and we also have our infradian rhythm, aka our menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle creates an ever-changing landscape of hormones and physical processes for the body to adjust to.
Let Us Illustrate
Imagine a race track, a perfect, oblong track with identical opposing curves and wide, even lanes. Its symmetry is predictable and visually pleasing. The curves are precise and its runners know exactly what to expect based on the lane they choose. This is the world of men, and they run the full track every day.
If you take that race track, make it 28 times as long, remove the lanes and pavement, and add some hills and extra curves, now you’ve got a woman’s world. Since there are no lanes, every lap is a little different, and the topography can vary a bit from one lap to the next. It’s a wild and dynamic course, and runners on this course know to expect the unexpected. It takes about a month to run this track (and many women are in the difficult position of having to run off-track a lot of the time too).
Each track is beautiful and unique, but they are very different from one another, and thus they require different techniques and skills to be run efficiently and enjoyably.
As you might imagine, the woman’s course, while intricate and beautiful, comes with a lot more challenges, thus requiring a lot more pacing and planning in order to make it around with sanity and health still intact. It’s also a hard track to run alone, which is probably why women are generally so social. (Even introverted women go to the bathroom in groups.)
Well Now I Feel Validated, but Also Discouraged
If this info has you feeling down, don’t lose heart, you’re not alone and there are steps you can take to improve your experience with the female racetrack aka infradian rhythm aka menstrual cycle.
- Listen to what your body is telling you.
Very often we ladies try to power through with our plans, when in reality we’d be much happier and more productive if we learned to listen to our bodies and give them what they need, even if it means changing the plan.
For example, say you train in CrossFit every day before work. But, you wake up one morning on your period feeling tired, nauseous, and a little achy. Your body is begging you to reset the alarm and skip the morning workout in favor of some much-needed sleep. But, we’ve been taught that overcoming our bodies is the right thing to do. “Train your body to work for you, and don’t give into those lazy feelings!”
What do you choose?
Those women who aren’t familiar with the importance of following their infradian cycle and working within their natural rhythms, will probably feel more pressure to haul it out of bed and hit the gym, bleeding or not. If they do stay in bed, they’re likely going to be plagued with feelings of guilt and failure for messing up their routine and skipping a day at the gym. *gasp!”
Listening to your body and giving it what it needs can turn this guilt complex on its head. It makes space for you to forgo the intense workout in favor of a few minutes of light stretching before work…and you get to feel good about this decision.
The notion that women are on a 24 hour schedule and need to establish an unchanging routine is just plain wrong. Learn to listen to your body and give it what it needs when it asks for it.
Cycle Syncing is a great way to learn to listen to your body and follow your natural rhythms. Check out our blog post, Cycle Syncing - For a More Balanced and Energetic Life or this Healthline article to learn more!
2. Stop trying to run the track all by your lonesome.
Women are innately social creatures, yes, even the introverts. We need time and space to share our stories and to hear the stories of other women. We need validation and a community within the larger the sisterhood of womankind.
We realize that socializing can feel like a daunting task for some of us, especially those who struggle with making and maintaining friends. So we’ve made a short list of ideas for connecting with other women.
- Join a Facebook group in an area of interest to you. This can be as lighthearted as crafting or as deep and meaningful as connecting with others who share a chronic condition you have. The internet has provided many wonderful opportunities for connecting with others without ever having to leave the comfort of your own home. It’s time we maximize that potential for good instead of just getting depressed over instagram feeds we can never hope to live up to.
Here is a link to a list of some top-rated women’s Facebook groups. Maybe your people are closer than you think!
- Volunteer with a nonprofit organization that’s meaningful to you. Nonprofits are a great way to connect with others in a meaningful way, whether that’s reading to kids, teaching gardening skills to your community, knitting baby blankets for special needs babies, or pretty much anything else you can think of. Getting together to work on a project or solve a problem can also help to take some of the pressure off the socialization aspect while also increasing the depth of your connection with those around you.
Want to volunteer but don’t know where to start? Use Volunteer Match’s nationwide search engine to help you find the perfect fit!
- Join a Moon Circle with other women in your community.
If you’ve never heard of a moon circle before, rest-assured it’s not a cult. Moon Circles, also called Women’s Circles, Red Tents, and a variety of other names, are groups of women of all ages that meet on the full moon and/or the new moon to talk with one another about how they’re doing and make space for primal femininity. Built on the wisdom of the ancients, these social groups have experienced a recent surge in popularity as modern women seek to connect with each other and with their primal roots.
Here is a link to the Wild Woman Project, an international group that hosts Moon Circles for women both in person and online.
- Connect with a female family member.
Very often we overlook those women who are best able to be our friends and listen to our stories. Family members like mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, nieces, etc., can love us in a way that outsiders just can’t, because unlike outsiders, they get it. These people are in the know. If you have healthy but distant relationships with women in your family, but you’d like to grow closer, then reach out! Let them know you’d like to grow closer, because chances are they would like to as well.
3. Pay attention to where you are at in your cycle.
Our hormones can alter a lot throughout the month, and with these alterations come changing needs. When we’re menstruating and losing blood, we need more iron-rich foods, more rest, and more quiet time. When we’re ovulating we need more activity, lighter foods, and lots of social interaction.
Additionally, when you give your body what it needs in each phase, your circadian and ultradian rhythms will be more easily balanced and things will flow more smoothly for you. Get in the rhythm of the month over the day.
There are a variety of programs that can help you to do this. From cycle syncing apps to moon circles, there are various methods of tracking your monthly cycle and providing for your body based on what phase you are in.
Just in case you forgot, but you’d like to know more, here’s that link to our blog post again: Cycle Syncing - For a More Balanced and Energetic Life.
4. Take time to reflect each month on what worked and what didn’t.
Making space for introspection and really taking time to examine your schedule’s impact on your health and wellbeing is important.
Even taking a few minutes each week or month to think through how things have been going recently and evaluate your choices can be helpful. You can reflect on things like whether you really needed to skip that yoga class last week, or perhaps consider adding more healthy carbohydrates to your diet can help to keep you more energized during certain phases.
As you evaluate, remember that your rhythms are all interconnected. Your hormones, sleep patterns, dietary choices, exercise routine, social activities, and rest periods all have an impact on each of your cycles. Living in balance means paying attention and making adjustments where needed.
5. Don’t Skip Your Breaks.
This is something that you need to be aware of on the daily. Remember that Waking Rest-Activity Cycle we mentioned earlier? Keep an eye on that cycle and remember to listen to your body and give it rest frequently throughout the day.
This tip can help to keep you more mentally and physically sharp regardless of what part of your infradian cycle you’re in. Let’s hear it for scheduled work breaks!
Embracing Your Rhythms
We hope that learning about your rhythms has inspired you to explore your own body’s rhythms and pay attention to the way they affect your life. Taking the time to work with nature and to balance our lives within its natural constructs can change the way we experience ourselves and others.
Do you agree that women struggle to balance their rhythms in modern cultures? Did you find the ideas in this blog helpful for pursuing a more balanced life? Find us on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok to let us know your thoughts!
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plant foods, is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such as a Naturopathic Doctor, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional, to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
- Biopsychology: Infradian and Ultradian Rhythms explained. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knSNZACAe6Y. Published May 14, 2017. Accessed January 11, 2023.
- What makes you tick: Circadian rhythms. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BoLqqNuqwA. Published November 9, 2015. Accessed January 11, 2023.
- Buzzard B. Avoid burnout and increase awareness using Ultradian rhythms. Medium. https://betterhumans.pub/avoid-burnout-and-increase-awareness-using-ultradian-rhythms-5e64158e7e19. Published October 12, 2021. Accessed January 11, 2023.
- Brigham and Women's Hospital. Circadian rhythms and your health video - Brigham and Women's Hospital. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBQDOiR9EvU. Published March 17, 2016. Accessed January 11, 2023.
- All gifs obtained from Gify.com; links for each gif are posted below the respective image.