Monday morning: You’re slumped in your chair staring at your computer screen, already feeling sapped of energy — and it’s only 9:30. As you squint your eyes and try to will yourself into feeling more energetic, a colleague taps you on the shoulder: “Hey, are you OK? You look terrible.”
You know you’re exhausted, and everyone around you knows it too. It might seem obvious to you that sleep is the answer to your problem. But there’s more to it than that. The true secret to success (i.e., natural energy) is the one-two punch of lowering sleep debt and working with your circadian rhythm.
Keep reading to understand why sleep debt and circadian rhythm are the keys to how you feel during the day, how to design your day for optimal productivity, and more.
When it comes to being your best self during the day, it turns out nothing matters as much as the two laws of sleep: sleep debt and circadian rhythm. This two-process model of sleep regulation was developed by sleep scientist Alexander Borbély who theorized that we sleep and wake based on the interaction between our sleep debt and our circadian rhythm.
The key to feeling more awake and energetic is learning to leverage the two laws of sleep. By minimizing your sleep debt and working with your circadian rhythm, you’re more likely to feel rested and productive.
If you don’t put enough gas in your car, you won’t have the fuel to get where you want to go. This somewhat simplistic illustration is one way to think about the effects of not getting enough sleep — or carrying a high sleep debt. For a more detailed explanation, let’s look at the opposite side of the spectrum.
If you were sleep debt-free — i.e., getting the precise amount of sleep your body needs every night — each day you'd experience a normal buildup of sleep pressure. Inside the brain, sleep pressure is the gradual accumulation of adenosine, an organic compound that decreases arousal and causes drowsiness. At bedtime, sleep pressure hits its peak and you hit the sheets. When you get your ideal amount of sleep, the brain purges itself of adenosine, resetting the pressure balance to zero for the next day.
On the other hand, when you’re sleep-deprived, instead of getting a full adenosine purge, you carry over the leftover adenosine to the next day. This leftover adenosine compounds the negative effects of sleep loss, and your energy levels take a hit.
It makes sense that paying down sleep debt can help you reclaim your energy. But how do you pay down debt?
If you woke up at 3 a.m., it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect that you could just jump up and go for your regular morning run and start your day with no problem. Most of us understand and accept the natural energetic limitations of our nighttime sleeping hours. But what you might not realize is that those hours are just one part of a bigger picture: your energy schedule, or circadian rhythm.
If you zoom out and look at all 24 hours of the day, what you’ll see is a wave of energy peaks and dips that represent your circadian rhythm. The RISE app shows the timing of your personal energy levels as they go up and down throughout the day. While the timing of these peaks and dips is different for everybody based on their unique chronobiology (and can change for the same person from day to day based on light exposure and other inputs), the pattern goes like this:
Bottom line: It is natural for energy to ebb and flow throughout the day. As much as you might like to be running on all cylinders with maximum energy all day long, that’s just not natural or realistic. However, you can use your peaks and dips in energy to your advantage.
People have a lot to say about time management. (A search on Amazon.com came up with 60,000 titles on the subject.) At Rise, we think energy management is what’s actually important. If you keep your circadian rhythm in mind as you plan your day, you may be able to schedule certain tasks and activities so that the energy required will match with your body’s natural energy levels at that time. For many people, employing this strategy turns out to be a transformative way of unlocking productivity.
For instance, if you have an important meeting that falls during your midday dip, try to move it up a couple of hours so that it coincides with your morning peak instead. You will be more alert, better able to focus, and have a higher tolerance for stress.
Here are some ideas on designing a workday for optimal productivity:
If you’re consistently meeting your sleep need and keeping your sleep debt low, but you still struggle to find enough energy to get through the day, seek medical advice from your doctor or another trusted source to rule out any serious underlying conditions or problems with your immune system.
Fatigue and lack of energy may indicate thyroid disease or anemia. Profound fatigue is also a common complaint of patients with autoimmune diseases including celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. And unstable blood sugar and conditions like diabetes and hypoglycemia can cause extreme fluctuations in energy levels.
If there are no serious health problems, low energy levels may be attributable to subpar nutrition. When you think of food as an energy source, the importance of making good choices is magnified. Finding the right balance of macronutrients — carbohydrates, protein, and fats — is important for wellness and energy. Some people do well on a high-protein diet and try to avoid carbs; others focus on whole grains like brown rice and quinoa. But it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor or certified nutritionist to recommend the best foods for you and your health and energy goals.
As a rule of thumb, it’s better to choose nutrient-dense whole foods like vegetables, leafy greens, and fruit over sugary or processed foods. If you think your diet may be lacking in essential vitamins and minerals — such as magnesium, folate, B vitamins, vitamin C, or other antioxidants — you might want to ask your doctor if adding a supplement could give you better energy outcomes or improve your overall health.
Besides sleep and good nutrition, exercise is by far one of the best natural energy boosters you’ll ever find. If you exercise regularly, you’ve probably experienced the endorphin rush that usually comes in the middle or toward the end of your sweat session.
Exercise can help increase blood flow, delivering more oxygen and nutrients to your tissues and improving cardiovascular function. Better heart and lung health equals more energy to do the things you want and need to do. Regular physical activity can also make it easier to get the sleep you need, which will help you feel more energetic.
In addition to this virtuous sleep-energy cycle, exercise also has other energy-specific health benefits including weight loss. If you’re overweight or obese, it takes a lot of energy to carry around all those extra pounds. It can even be exhausting. Getting down to a normal weight can make you a more energy-efficient organism.
And what’s one of the most potentially problematic categories of energy boosters? Energy drinks. Without even addressing their sugar content, the fact that so many of these popular beverages are pumped full of large amounts of caffeine means they can pose significant health risks, especially when consumed in large quantities. Excess caffeine can give you more than jitters. It has also been associated with heart rhythm disturbances, high blood pressure, anxiety, and, of course, sleep problems.
For most people, drinking a cup of coffee or green tea for a little pick-me-up is a perfectly safe — and often effective — way to use caffeine to combat fatigue. Just keep in mind, since caffeine blocks the effects of adenosine, consuming caffeine later in the afternoon or evening may disrupt your sleep. The RISE app can help you here by reminding you when you should start avoiding caffeine during the day.
Thankfully, there is one energy-boosting beverage that’s safe to put on an all-you-can-drink list: water. But even those of us who know hydration is important don’t always drink water as much as we should. Because studies show that being even mildly dehydrated can negatively impact mood and energy levels, you might want to consider making your water bottle your constant companion.
Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and drinking plenty of water can give your natural energy a boost. But the true key to having more energy during the day is keeping your sleep debt low by getting the sleep you need and following the flow of your circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is the often-missing piece that you may be less familiar with, but it’s a valuable energy secret that can make a big difference to your daily life.
The RISE app will help you tackle both sleep debt and circadian rhythm. With the app, you will know your sleep debt number, allowing you to take steps to reduce it. You will also know the exact timing of your peaks and dips in energy, so you can anticipate the fluctuations and use them to your advantage.
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