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Timing is Everything

Getting in Sync with Your Body's Natural Rhythm

You’ve no doubt heard that we all have an internal body clock that instinctively prompts us to, say, go to bed or eat our next meal. But did you know there’s actually an ideal time to do just about everything in life, from working out to winning an argument?

That’s the conclusion of Michael Breus, a nationally recognized psychologist and sleep expert. He discovered that we all have a “chronotype” — a biological composition that makes us unique. Dr. Breus maintains that determining your chronotype and knowing how to properly apply it in every situation can help lead to a healthier and happier life.

He’s mapped out his plan for uncovering your full potential in a new book, The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype — and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More.

In this interview, he offers a preview of his approach and explains why knowing your when is so essential.

How did you first discover that we are all biologically programmed to have a perfect time for doing almost every task imaginable?

It began with a firsthand experience with one of my patients. I specialize in helping people with insomnia turn off their brains at night. One patient said to me, “Dr. Breus, I don’t have a problem falling or staying asleep, but I’m doing it at the wrong time.” I asked what she meant. She replied, “My body wants me to go to bed at 1 a.m. and wake up around 9 a.m. But I can’t do that because of my work schedule.” As I investigated further, I discovered there are more than 200 evidence-based studies looking at different types of chronotypes, giving us an indication of the best time for performing various tasks based on our biological makeup. In the case of this patient, once we got her boss to change her work schedule to accommodate the best time for her to sleep, all of her issues went away.

You determined that we generally fall into one of four chronotype categories, which you label as Wolf, Lion, Bear and Dolphin.

Yes, and you can easily figure out which chronotype you are by taking a short online quiz at thecapitalgroup.com/pcs/quiz. I came up with these categories based on science, and I’ve found them to be about 80% accurate for most people. For instance, Dolphins tend to be highly intelligent occasional problem sleepers with a high level of perfectionism that can get in the way of one’s productivity.

How did you proceed from defining these chronotypes to figuring out the optimal activity times?

Once I know your chronotype, I can pinpoint the exact distribution of your hormones and tell, for instance, when your cortisol is high and melatonin is low. I then take those values and match them with productivity. Let’s take sex as an example. To perform this act, men need testosterone, progesterone, adrenaline and cortisol to be high and melatonin to be low. For Lions, to pick one, that’s in the morning. Most people have sex late at night, which is the worst possible time from a hormonal standpoint. If you determine your chronotype, you can then come up with the peak time for any activity, and it’s all based on science.

Can you apply The Power of When to losing weight?

Sure. You begin by looking at two important factors: when your metabolism is ready to accept the food and process it at a quick rate, and the amount of time you spend eating during the day. The short version is that people should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper if they want to lose weight.

You also show how to use these principles for such endeavors as asking your boss for a raise.

Yes, and to do that successfully, you need to look at chronotypes both ways. If you’re going to ask for a raise, or anything else where you want a positive response, you want to do it on a day of the week when people are generally in the best mood, which is almost always on Friday. We also found through research that people are even more positive later in the day on Friday because they are about to head off for the weekend. Then you need to determine the other person’s chronotype to determine when they as an individual will be in the most positive mood. You can get a good sense of where the person falls by matching up their characteristics to those of the four types. If your boss gets in to work at 7:30 a.m., before everyone else, he’s most likely a Lion. If he shows up late all the time, he’s probably a Wolf.

According to your research, there’s even a best time of day to take your medicine.

And vitamins as well. Generally speaking, taking them with breakfast, assuming you follow my advice and make that your biggest meal of the day, is most optimal. Many vitamins are synthetic, so you want to pair them with foods that contain the same vitamin. That way, the enzymes can help them to be absorbed. But it’s a different story when it comes to other medicines. For instance, there’s a study showing that taking blood pressure medication at night can drop your chance of a heart attack by 33%.

Since it’s your area of expertise, what’s your advice on how to get a good night’s sleep?

It begins by understanding how much sleep you need. Not everyone needs eight hours. That’s a myth. I’ve been a six-and-a-half-hour sleeper my entire life! But timing is the most important element, which is where your chronotypes come in. I’m a Wolf, which means I like to stay up late. I usually don’t go to bed until 12:30 a.m., and I get up between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Teaching people when to go to bed and how much sleep they need is the key to better sleeping habits.

The above article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.