Our ancestors woke when the sun appeared on the horizon and the chirping of birds greeted the day, and took shelter when the twilight turned the sky from blue to gray, and slept when darkness fell. They lived in tune with their circadian rhythm, which monitors the wake / rest / sleep cycle along with other body functions.
Today, the sun, stars and moon have given way to long working hours, childcare at home and Netflix feasts. Especially in the last year, when the boundaries between work, parenthood and private time were blurred beyond recognition, our circadian rhythm – the internal clock that regulates our sleep-wake rhythm – can tick to an unnatural rhythm and lead to problems falling asleep and health challenges.
Hormonal changes can alter our sleep-wake cycles, and therefore our circadian rhythms, and many people are suffering from insomnia as a result of the pandemic, said occupational therapist Brittany Ferri, PhD, OTR / L, CPRP.
Hormone levels – including melatonin, serotonin, and dopamine – can also be further depressed by pandemic-related issues such as isolation, less time outdoors, poor work-life balance, increased stress, unhealthy diet and a lack of ergonomic working conditions, she said.
Tick Tock, Tick Tock
All living things have a circadian rhythm, which is sometimes referred to as biological timing or body clock, and which is adjusted to 24-hour changes in biological processes at the molecular, cellular and behavioral levels. It enables us to adapt to changes in our environment, including the cycles of day and night.
One easy way to understand circadian rhythm disruption is to remember the last time you had jet lag. Your body releases melatonin, the most important sleep hormone, according to a learned schedule – even though you are now in a different time zone. The result? Difficulty falling asleep or waking up at the usual time.
However, according to naturopath Leigha Saunders, ND, the circadian rhythm regulates much more than just the time we are awake and asleep. Our circadian rhythm is involved in melatonin, the hormone that helps initiate and maintain our ability to sleep, but it also monitors and regulates other body functions such as appetite, meal times and digestion, as well as the release of cortisol (our main stress hormone). ), Insulin (the hormone that regulates blood sugar), and even our sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and DHEA. “It also matters when we feel most productive and when we have a natural tendency to exercise,” Saunders said.
A disruption in the circadian rhythm can disrupt our sleeping, waking and digestive systems and can also lead to an increased risk of mental and physical health problems such as depression, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and depression, said Kent Smith, D-ABDSM , ASBA, President of the American Sleep and Breathing Academy. Smith outlined some of the specific problems that can arise with a circadian rhythm disorder:
Delayed sleep phase disorder: When you wake up and go to sleep more than two hours later than a normal sleep cycle.
Advanced sleep phase disorder: Similar to Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, except that you wake up and go to bed earlier than a typical sleep cycle.
Jet lag: When your body’s internal clock has been disturbed by a long flight to a destination that is different from your home in two or more time zones. This can lead to general tiredness, altered appetite, altered gastrointestinal function and mood disorders.
Shift work disorder: A constant or recurring pattern of interrupted sleep that leads to excessive sleepiness or insomnia. This can be the case if you work frequently on alternating shifts or work at night, as these schedules conflict with your body’s natural circadian rhythm, making it difficult to adjust to the change. This can lead to constant fatigue, mood swings, decreased sex drive and gastrointestinal problems, and an increased risk of weight gain, heart disease, breast and uterine cancer, high blood pressure, and alcohol and drug abuse.
Irregular sleep-wake rhythm: This occurs when you have an undefined sleep-wake cycle. Symptoms can include excessive sleepiness, insomnia, or both.
Non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome: When the actual sleep-wake cycle changes daily, delaying the time by one to two hours each day.
Reset your body clock
Whether your sleep patterns are getting wildly out of hand, or you just want to sleep more firmly and on a regular basis, there are simple steps you can take to re-sync your circadian rhythm. Ferri, Saunders, and Smith offer the following advice:
• Wake up at the same time each day and go to sleep at the same time each night.
• Stop eating at least four to five hours before bed.
• Take a short walk or other gentle exercise after a light dinner.
• Keep your bedroom slightly cool, as this will help you fall asleep slowly, as your body no longer has to strain to cool down.
• Have some chamomile tea – or a decaffeinated herbal tea – before bed.
• Use soothing essential oils such as lavender or eucalyptus before bed.
• Take a deep breath to calm the central nervous system.
• Listen to a meditation CD or stream soft music to relax.
• Take a melatonin supplement if you are having trouble falling asleep.
• Use bright light therapy or expose to artificial light during the day.
• If you identify yourself as a night owl, you can work towards it by gradually changing your morning wake up time.
• Contact a federally recognized sleep specialist for an assessment and behavioral assessment. Once a sleep specialist has identified the mix of behavioral, cognitive, and physiological factors involved in your specific sleep disorder, it is possible to develop a customized treatment plan.
• Turn off all screens at least 90 minutes before you go to sleep.
The curse of the blue light
For people today, blue light, or blue wavelengths, is a major cause of circadian rhythm disruption and one that deserves focused attention – emanating from the screens of our computers, pads, and smartphones.
Many of us are very attached to our digital devices – especially since less time outside the home has resulted in more time spent on social media, texting, online games, and zooming courses and meetings (for example, one study showed people were 35% more spending time on social media than before the pandemic) – but crouching with Hulu after the kids fall asleep or scrolling in bed with our smartphones leaves us with blue light that can disturb our rest.
Harvard researchers compared the effects of six and a half hours exposure to blue light with exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted the circadian rhythm by twice (three hours versus one and a half hours).
Saunders even coined the term “light delay” to refer to the effect of blue light on melatonin levels. “Blue light emitted from screens, devices and LED lightbulbs sends the same signal to our pineal gland that it is still day,” she said.
“Limiting technology and exposure to blue light in the hour or two before bed can greatly increase your melatonin production and your ability to sleep deeply,” she added.
And like our ancestors, you should expose yourself to plenty of bright light during the day to increase your ability to fall asleep at night, as well as your mood and alertness during the day.
About the author:
Karen Menehan is Editor-in-Chief for Print and Digital at MASSAGE Magazine. She has edited or reported for Imagine Magazine, the Sacramento Bee Newspapers, and the Mid-County Post, and more. Her recent articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “Connect with the Benefits of Nature for Self-Care,” “A Timeline of Massage Events that Shaped the Field, 1985-2020,” and “A Move to Transcend State Boundaries: Interstate Compact for Massage Therapists Now In Progress. “