THE 4 UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES OF HEALTH
4: The Principle of Cycles
It has been said many times by wise men and women throughout time: Change is the defining quality of nature. The principle of cycles gives us ways to apply this wisdom functionally in our lives. It asks that we notice where we are in nature’s cycles, and coordinate our daily activities and health choices with the phases of the cycles.
Everything in life is part of a cycle. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, the tides ebb and flow, flowers bloom and shed, summer turns to winter; everything in nature has a cycle. Life and death, growth and decay, expansion and contraction. These cycles are required to grow and sustain life, and our bodies are no different. Despite all the glitz and glamour of modern life, somehow we forgot we are a part of nature’s cycles.
Our bodies evolved over hundreds of millions of years, shaped by the cycles of nature. Without these cycles, we would not look, act, or feel the way we do. The cycles speak inside your body, and their language is called hormones. Hormones listen to inputs from the world around it – your living environment – and send signals to your body about how it should adjust. Science has identified more than 60 of these hormones, and new hormones are discovered regularly.
You can think of this as swimming in a circular river. For many of us, we spend our lives swimming against the current. Learning to live with nature’s cycles is like when you realize you can turn in the opposite direction and flow with the current. You can make the same journey with significantly more ease.
Ancient cultures give us wonderful insight into how our energy naturally shifts and expresses throughout the day and how we can coordinate our choices. This is a huge reprieve for most people who have normalized stress, tension, and hardship in their lives. As many as 1 in 5 women are diagnosed with a severe hormone imbalance.
The Sun Cycle:
It’s helpful to first understand the principle of cycles through the energetics of the sun cycle, as it creates the most visible changes. The way we expend energy is different at different times of the day. As we learn to live in accordance with these natural rhythms, life begins to feel more at ease.
We habitually awake near sunrise. This time of day is cool, clear, and dry. Hormonal signals trigger physiologic cues that naturally start bringing you to wake up from a night’s sleep.
If you’ve spent time in nature in the morning, you’ll know that the natural world begins to stir in this predawn period, synchronizing itself with the prevailing energy of movement.
Regardless of the time of year, the beginning part of the sun cycle is much like spring. It feels new, natural, and often moist and cool. Like spring, there’s a heaviness in the air that is sometimes mirrored in the body as sluggishness, haziness, a depth of sleep that feels bottomless.
The earth rotates on its axis at approximately 1,000 miles per hour, creating a visual effect of the sun rising and setting. With this comes a considerable variance of light in 24 hours. Before we had artificial light, this was our only source of light, and all activities of our lives coordinated perfectly with this cycle.
The sun cycle is the most fundamental to all life on earth. Ancient monks charted its path and effect on our internal rhythms and potentials. Through science, we can now see that with even more clarity.
Over hundreds of millions of years, the sun conditioned a Circadian Rhythm in our body. The Circadian rhythm works through a part of your brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), otherwise known as the 24-hour clock within your brain. The SCN takes in signals from the world outside – primarily the amount of light or dark received through the eyes – and regulates a chemical called Melatonin. The SCN creates a natural rise in activity throughout the morning and starts to peak just before midday. It will sustain our activity throughout the afternoon. As we move into the evening and more darkness hits our eyes, the Circadian drive shifts, and our activity level naturally starts to come down again. It hits its lowest point 3-4 hours into our sleep cycles and then slowly picks up again.
Artificial lights send false signals to the SCN, which tunes it all out of whack. On occasion, this is of minor harm, but we now know habitually staying active after sundown can be very harmful to the delicate balance of your hormones.
Every year there’s a fascinating global sleep experiment with 1.6 billion people worldwide called daylight savings. In the spring in the northern hemisphere, when we lose 1 hour of sleep, and on the following day, there is an astounding 24% increase in relative heart attack rates. In the autumn, when we gain an hour of sleep, we see a 21% reduction in heart attacks the following day. There’s a similar profile for road accidents and suicide rates. One study even showed an increase in the harshness of federal judges’ sentencing! So if you are sentenced the day after daylight savings in the spring, you’re likely to receive a harsher judgment, because of the bad mood the judge is in because of loss of sleep. Our bodies are very, very sensitive to losing sleep.
People who work overnight shifts and adapt to abnormal sleeping cycles often report serious health problems. One study showed that people working overnight shifts were an astounding 42% more likely to be depressed than those working during the day. Night work may also contribute to the risk of heart disease and cancer, according to research*.
Rising with the sun and resting after sundown is not small health optimizations – they are essential habits. Resting does not necessarily mean going to sleep; it means after sundown you retreat into your safe space and limit stimulation and activity. You can begin preparing yourself for sleep by calming yourself down, limiting movement, and reflecting on the day’s events. The importance of this simple habit is life-changing and a precious gift to your hormones. You’ll likely find when you begin honoring rest at sundown; you’ll need to make no special effort to wake up with the sunrise; it happens automatically.
In the morning, your energy is ascending; it’s waking up. Energy in the morning is typically clear and clean but still quite vulnerable and not at its peak power. Therefore, it’s essential to limit intensity in the morning. Yoga or other forms of fitness practiced in the morning should be gentle and ascending with long warmups. Your sequences should include slow, drawn-out warmups and gradually increase the movement and energy, coordinating with the sun’s ascension. Morning is a good time for energizing foods like herbal tea and crisp vegetables. Avoid heavy foods in the morning, which change the natural ascension of rising energy.
The ancient yogis were extremely attuned to the cycles of the sun. The yoga practice was designed entirely differently depending on what time of the day you were practicing. Morning yoga began with Surya Namaskar, literally translated as “Sun Salutation,” which gently warmed up the body. Morning practice would move the energy toward ascension with gradually increasing intensity to prepare the body for the day. Other good morning activities are walking or hiking in nature or light jogging. Intense fitness should also be avoided in the morning, particularly without first warming up. This can be a sudden shock to the hormones, creating confusion and imbalance.
Mid-morning to early afternoon is the warmest part of the day, similar to summer. It’s the time of the day when the sun rises to its highest point in the sky, giving us an experience of our peak temperatures and intensity. While the morning is the time to transition from sleeping to waking gradually, midday is when your energy peaks. If you honored your rest the night before and honored your morning needs, this is a great time to eat larger meals as your digestive fire is the strongest.
From late afternoon into sundown, your energy naturally descends with the sun. Riding this cycle movement, you’ll want to coordinate your energy and begin releasing your day. It’s when you are ready for those intense workouts. Hikes, lifting sessions, and other hard exercises are best done in that sweet spot in the late afternoon into the early evening.
Late night is a time to turn inward. As you move into the nighttime (past 7pm), avoid energizing and agitating foods like coffee, caffeine, sugar, and spicy foods. As the sun sets, avoid intense energy exertion and go for more restorative practices like yin, mediation, reading, or reflective journaling. Tend towards warmer, comforting foods like soups, and calming herbal tea with lavender or chamomile. Avoid television at night, particularly intense media, which disrupts your Circadian Rhythm. Reading books, journaling, and reflecting on your day is great in the evening.
- How does your energy fluctuate throughout the day?
- Where could you find more ease in how you structure your day?
The Moon Cycles:
It’s so extraordinary that we female humans should be linked to the moons and the tides. It’d sound like science fiction if you made it up; mysterious planetary forces making us bleed.
– Sofka Zinovieff
Centuries ago, Isaac Newton first observed that the levels of the ocean changed with the position of the moon. The moon exerts so much gravity on earth that it pulls more water to one side, depending on its position. The moon’s gravity even pulls land, but not enough for anyone to notice.
The moon circles the earth in 28 days, which by no coincidence is the average time it takes a woman to complete her menstrual cycle. Native Americans saw menstruation as the time women were closest to their spiritual powers. It was a time of great honor for the tribe. At the new moon, the women would retreat to bleed and meditate together on tribal quests and receive divine direction for the tribe over the month ahead. They would sing, create art and tell stories. Menstruation was not considered something to dread but something to worship. Menstruation was a superpower!
It’s estimated that 1 in 5 women today suffer from Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition that affects a woman’s hormone levels, causing them to skip menstrual periods and making it harder for them to get pregnant.
Megan Cooper, 31 from London, England, suffered from PCOS for years before healing herself.
“It was a long journey to heal myself. My healing came from living more in accordance with nature. First, I started with cleaning up my diet and eating less processed foods. And while that helped, what ultimately led to my healing was learning to coordinate my energy expenditure with the cycles of the sun and moon. It was this deeply intuitive healing process that changed my life. I now feel like I’m living more in flow with things, and not swimming against the tide constantly.”
A woman’s cycle contains FOUR phases.
Days 1 – 7 – MENSTRUAL PHASE (Inner Winter)
Week 1, your menstrual phase, is your inner winter. In the natural world, winter is the time of hibernation, the darkest hours. The landscape is bare. Animals take refuge and flowers cease to bloom. This phase invites you to slow down, rest, and rejuvenate. When you give it space, your period can be a peaceful, cleansing, and joyful time full of self-love, a bit like sitting on the couch under a blanket while the rain falls outside. It’s a time to connect with yourself on an intimate level. You may notice yourself already seeking more time alone, feeling more socially withdrawn and sensitive to noise, smell, or touch.
Increased delta brainwaves make you more present with what is happening inside your body; something science now calls “interoception.” It’s an opportune time to be still and listen to your body’s innate intelligence. You may find great richness from going deeper into your meditation practice, journaling, or creating art.
During menstruation, estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest. The decline of progesterone signals the womb to begin shedding the inner lining (the endometrium.) You may feel naturally more fatigued and quiet. Also, bleeding-induced iron drops in your blood levels can cause fogginess and cravings for iron-rich, nourishing foods. At the same time, low levels of these hormones signal for the pituitary gland to release the Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) to the ovaries, restarting the next ovulation process. Multiple fluid-filled pockets or ‘follicles’ containing eggs will begin to rise on the surface of the ovaries. So as one cycle comes to an end, another begins. With less outward energy available, it’s ideal to opt for restorative yoga or yoga Nidra. This is a great time to avoid weight lifting and intense exercise altogether. Warming, nutrient-dense foods will replenish your body from the inside out and stave off cravings.
WEEK 2 – Days 8 – 14 – FOLLICULAR PHASE (Inner Spring)
As you enter Week 2, or Inner-Spring, your body taps into the energy of blossoming springtime. The energetics of inner spring is similar to the beginning phase of the sun cycle where you are gradually ascending towards peak energy. As everything in the natural world begins to flower, this is your most creative and energized phase. Innerspring is a time for you to reawaken your energy.
In this first half of the cycle, estrogen and progesterone continue to rise. One of the follicles becomes dominant, and the egg matures, producing estrogen as it does. The other follicles shrink back, and the uterus lining thickens. The pituitary gland releases Luteinizing Hormone (LH) causing the mature egg to be released from its follicle and travel along the fallopian tube to the uterus – the process known as ovulation when a woman is most fertile.
WEEK 3 – Days 15 – 21 OVULATORY PHASE (Inner Summer)
As you transition from Weeks 2 and 3 (Day 14), your cycle reaches ovulation, the inner summer. As you release an egg, your body is vying for you to get pregnant. Now you’ll feel your most attractive and vibrant. You’re a female embodiment of bright sunshine, blue skies, and a world in full bloom. Your energy and libido are like the Duracell Bunny. You race through tasks at record speed and can dance through the day. This is the period where you’ll naturally feel most social. With your energy projected outward, you feel most self-assured and least susceptible to insecurities. You might feel like a superwoman!
Once the egg has been released at ovulation, the now-empty follicle (corpus luteum) releases progesterone and estrogen to thicken the uterus lining, preparing for pregnancy. A surge in testosterone increases sex drive. Game on! Once the egg has been released at ovulation, the now-empty follicle (corpus luteum) releases progesterone and estrogen to thicken the uterus lining, preparing for pregnancy. A surge in testosterone levels can increase sex drive around ovulation.
WEEK 4 – Days 22 – 28 LUTEAL OR PREMENSTRUAL PHASE (Inner Autumn)
After the peak of ovulation, our energy shifts into a downturn as we head into Week 4, inner autumn. It’s common for this to be a phase of inner turmoil because our minds want to remain in the libido of inner summer. If you have a demanding work life, you might experience struggle during inner autumn. In case you are wondering, men, do experience these same hormonal cycles, but to a lesser degree.
The more you begin to synchronize your energetic expenditure with nature’s cycles, the more you will feel at ease and in natural harmony because you are in rhythm with the earth. Just as the trees shed their leaves, your body prepares to purge the lining of your womb. As your energy declines and internal awareness increases, insecurities can rear their ugly head. Yesterday you were on top of the world, and now you’re questioning your existence!
It’s helpful in this phase to remind yourself that this descent in energy is quite literally natural. Be compassionate with yourself as you adjust to this new phase; it will help this transition to be graceful. Like all the phases of the cycle, there are gifts to be found if you sync with it. During inner autumn, you will experience enhanced communication between your brain’s left and right sides, giving you heightened awareness and discernment. You’ll see things with more precision and clarity, the perfect time for spreadsheets, lists, or doing taxes. To support this natural downturn of energy, you’ll want to listen to your body and wind down the intensity of your workouts.
If fertilization occurs, the egg will attach itself to the uterine wall, and progesterone from the empty follicle will prevent the uterus lining from being shed. If fertilization doesn’t occur, progesterone levels drop, and over the next few days the uterus lining breaks down. It then passes through the cervix along with the egg and menstruation occurs once more.
The good news:
If all this sounds like a lot of work, there’s good news. These cycles happen naturally and most of your work is to simply notice the signals and get out of the way. With awareness and practice, you can learn to adapt your lifestyle to capitalize on each phase. You can structure your work around your most productive times (inner spring), your work-outs and social calendar around your times of extroversion versus introversion (inner summer), your reflection and analytical needs around your time of peak discernment (inner autumn) and your R&R during your inner winter. This is one of the best ways to promote long-term hormonal harmony.
The Seasonal Cycles:
At this point, you may begin to see a pattern. In all of these cycles, the sun, moon, and seasonal cycles, there are phases of peak energy and stillness/restoration. Essentially, we are retraining ourselves to listen to these times and flow with the natural rhythms of our energy expenditures. So no more Crossfit in the morning (sorry), and no more 3 am raves (well, maybe on occasion).
Similar to the sun and moon cycles, seasonal cycles also work with ascending and descending energy. We can also coordinate our annual plans and activities to do most of our energy expenditure in the spring/summer and use fall and winter as a time for rest and recovery.
You also might have noticed that the cycles overlap. For example, your absolute peak of energy in the year will be in Summer, during week 2 of your menstrual cycle, during the afternoon. This would be a great time to plan an adventurous hike. And your absolute lowest point of energy of the year will be during winter, during your menstrual period, at night. This would be a great time to nest yourself in your house for a few days with some warm soup and books. This helps create a useful map of how we can begin to plan and coordinate all our life activities to be in wonderful harmony with nature.
THE DAILY & SEASONAL CLOCK:
Check out this helpful chart. Both Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda have daily/seasonal clocks that map out the ideal times in the day and year to do certain activities.
This helps us understand specifically the times during the day and seasons that are most optimal for certain activities. By bringing a little more intentionality to your day and planning according to this clock, life becomes much more at ease, as you are flowing in accordance with your evolutionary design. By coordinating with these cycles, you are literally fine-tuning your hormonal balancing, bringing greater ease and pleasure in all aspects of life. You’re deciding to swim with the current, not against it.