Few things are better than getting a good night’s sleep. But unfortunately, many of us struggle with it. If you have trouble falling asleep or find yourself yawning throughout your day, your circadian rhythm may be off.
This article explores the concept of your circadian rhythm, its importance, and a few ways you can reset it to get better sleep.
What are your circadian rhythms?
Every cell in the body has its clock. This clock tells us when it’s time to get energized, rest, or perform a task. Similarly, we have set times for when we sleep, eat, and go to work. If we align the body’s internal clock with our day-to-day schedule, we can optimize our energy and help our cells work more efficiently when we need them to.
In fact, evidence has shown that this concept of timely harmony can have many positive benefits for our health. Our internal clock, also known as our circadian clock, helps our genes know when to turn on and off within 24 hours. This pattern of regulating our genes can direct many essential functions.
Example: Our circadian rhythm made you feel tired at night and refreshed in the morning. If you’ve ever had a significant change in your schedule, like flying overseas for work, you’ve probably experienced jet lag. This is your body’s circadian clock being thrown off of its typical rhythm. Jet lag can look like difficulty focusing throughout the ‘new’ daytime and feel unusually awake at night. This happens because your internal circadian clock has optimized cognitive functioning (thinking) for what you come to know as daytime.
Why are circadian rhythms so important?
Our circadian clock keeps our bodily functioning working in perfect harmony. Think of it as a grand conductor of an orchestra. To deliver a masterpiece, the conductor must ensure that the correct sections are playing the right notes at the right time.
Our circadian conductor directs the suitable cells to turn on the right genes at the right time. For example, our liver, gut, and pancreas work together to digest food. Meanwhile, our kidneys work to filter our blood and absorb nutrients.
Why does it go out of balance?
Unfortunately, certain aspects of our circadian clock become dampened as we age. This results in incorrect gene expression; our cells are much more likely to perform tasks to a lesser extent or at the wrong time.
Cells that aren’t functioning properly can lead to an increased risk of disease. For example, poor quality of sleep is often linked to earlier cognitive decline. Although it’s not well known how we can restore any aspects that we’ve lost, our circadian system is malleable, which means we have some control over it. Similarly, jet lag is temporary. We’re able to give our body the right signals to synchronize our circadian clock and day-to-day life. And the primary signal for this happens to be light.
When daylight hits photoreceptors in our eyes, it signals to the brain that it’s daytime. In turn, the brain quickly sends a message to our body and starts our metabolism to prepare for the day.
The next cue is food. Eating breakfast in the morning helps send the right signals from the gut to the rest of our bodies. Our circadian clock is rhythmic, so the key to optimal circadian health is the consistency of sleeping and eating times.
Tips for maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm
Since research has shown a link between essential bodily functions and circadian rhythms, it’s crucial to develop a few healthy habits to support your sleep-wake cycle.
Maintain a consistent sleep schedule to build consistency. It’s one thing to go to bed at the same time every night. But what helps your circadian rhythm is waking up at the same time every day as well. A consistent sleep-wake cycle will train your internal clock to avoid waking up throughout the night and help you sleep better. Try to resist catching up on sleep after a restless night. While it may feel like the right thing to do, it can also disrupt your circadian rhythms even more.
Around 9 pm, the body starts to slow down and trigger the release of melatonin. This same cue naturally wakes your body between 7-8 am. Do your best to orient your schedule around these times, with extra time to wind down before going to bed. If you’re not able to shift your schedule around these times, try to adjust it slowly in 15-minute increments every couple of days.
Limit nightly screen use. Because bright light wakes up your brain, try to avoid bright lights before bed. Light from your cell phone, laptop, lamps, tv, and tablets can all trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime. And as a result, suppresses the production of melatonin.
Instead, start to dim your lights 1-2 hours before bedtime and resist the temptation to scroll through social media while lying in bed. If you have to use screens in the evenings, for example, if you work a night shift, consider wearing blue light glasses or use a blue light filter app on whatever device you’re using.
Embrace natural light in the morning. Light in the morning helps signal your body and brain that it’s time to stop producing melatonin. So after your alarm sounds first thing in the morning, open up the blinds. If you have the time, go for a walk or get outside. Exposing yourself to sunlight helps to reset the body’s internal clock for the entire day.
Skip the afternoon nap. Taking a nap decreases your body’s ability to fall asleep at night. So when tempted to take a mid-afternoon nap, get up and move around instead. Staying active throughout your day balances your circadian rhythms by using up your energy before it’s time for bed. And the longer you’re awake, the more tired you’ll feel at the end of the day. Many of us live sedentary lifestyles due to working behind a desk, so a great way to support your circadian rhythm is by getting up and moving every 30 minutes. Moving your body every so often can help wake you up.
Try to avoid eating heavy meals and drinking caffeine later in the day. The foods you eat impact the quality of your sleep. Alcohol and food can cause heartburn, while nicotine and caffeine are stimulants that trigger the brain to keep the body active and alert. Try to give yourself 12-14 hours without food to reset (this includes time for sleep).
As a result, your liver won’t be working as hard at night. When your internal clock triggers melatonin, it also sends another signal to your liver that tells it to stop producing enzymes to turn calories into energy and instead start storing energy. The more food you eat before bedtime, the harder your liver will work, and more food is stored rather than burned.
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