There are few things better than a good night’s sleep, but many of us struggle to catch enough Zs. If you have trouble falling asleep and waking up at a certain time, or catching yourself yawning for most of the day, your circadian rhythm could be disrupted.
We’re here to help you understand not only how it works, but how to get your circadian rhythm back on track for healthy (and regular) sleep. Dr. Jonathan Schwartz from the INTEGRIS Center for Sleep Disorders in Oklahoma helps us with his expertise to get to the bottom of the clock that ensures an efficient sleep-wake rhythm.
What are your circadian rhythms?
Your circadian sleep-wake rhythm is an internal clock that runs constantly and alternates between wakefulness and drowsiness. You may have heard of the sleep-wake cycle because it helps regulate sleep patterns.
Circadian rhythms are not just for humans. Almost all living organisms have circadian rhythms – plants, animals, microbes, and more (with a few exceptions). In fact, there is a whole scientific field called chronobiology that is devoted to studying circadian rhythms.
How does it work?
Our bodies have “circadian clocks” that work in most tissues and organs to regulate timing and circadian rhythms. A master clock ensures that every circadian clock and its rhythm run smoothly.
“Many body functions function according to a circadian clock,” says Dr. Black. “Everyday functions – such as drowsiness, alertness and hunger – and many hormones function according to a circadian rhythm. The clock keeps the rhythm so that we have ups and downs throughout the day, such as being sleepy part of the day but awake and active the other part. “
Located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the brain’s hypothalamus, the master clock receives light signals from the retina of the eye and sends that information to various parts of the brain, including the pineal gland, which releases melatonin.
These signals vary throughout the day, which is why your circadian rhythm usually coincides with the solar cycle. At night, your SCN receives signals that it is dark and late in the day. By doing this, it sends a message to the brain that it is time to release melatonin, which makes you sleepy. The opposite occurs during the day, as light signals suppress melatonin production.
It is common to experience bursts of energy throughout the day, but it seems that many adults feel most tired in the afternoons. These dips can vary based on each person’s habits and age.
Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Circadian Rhythm
Studies have shown a possible link between healthy circadian rhythms and coordination, cardiovascular activity, cognition, weight control, immune function and digestion. To keep these body functions in check, it is important to develop the following daily habits to support your sleep-wake cycle.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule
Many assume that a set bedtime will keep their circadian rhythm on track. This isn’t the case – it’s also important to wake up at the same time each day. A consistent sleep-wake routine trains your master clock so that you don’t wake up all night. Resist the urge to catch up on sleep after a restless night. It is common to take long naps or sleep in on the weekend, but doing so can worsen your circadian rhythm.
Melatonin usually starts around 9:00 p.m. with the body resting and slows down (which stimulates the body to wake up) around 7:30 a.m. Try to base your sleep schedule on these times with extra time to relax before bed. If your routine deviates significantly from these times, slowly adjust it in 15-minute increments every few days.
Go outside in the morning
Exposure to light in the morning causes your brain to produce less melatonin. The first thing to do after your alarm goes off is to open the blinds. If you have the time, go outside and take a walk or have your coffee on the porch. Exposure to sunlight will reset your body clock for the day.
Skip the afternoon nap
Staying active throughout the day can help balance your circadian rhythm by depleting your energy stores before you go to sleep. “If you have trouble sleeping, napping can decrease your ability to fall asleep at night,” says Dr. Black. “The longer you are up, the more your body wants to sleep towards the end of the day.”
Whenever you start to feel an energy surge, get up and move. Many Americans live a sedentary lifestyle because they work behind a desk. Give your body some exercise and support your circadian rhythm by moving every 30 minutes. This can wake up your body.
Avoid heavy meals and caffeine later in the day
What you eat can affect your sleep. Food and alcohol cause heartburn as well caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that can cause your brain to keep your body active. Try to give your body 12 to 14 hours without food to sit back (this may include the hours you sleep).
If you do this, your liver won’t work as hard all night. When your master clock triggers the release of melatonin, it also sends signals to the liver telling it to stop producing enzymes to convert calories into energy and instead start storing energy. The more food you add to your body before bed, the harder your liver will work and more food will be stored than burned.
Limit nighttime screen usage
We discussed the effects of morning light on your circadian rhythm, and evening light works the same way. Household light, from both lamps and blue light Sent out by laptops, smartphones, and tablets, your brain can think it’s still daytime, thereby suppressing melatonin production. “Bright light wakes your brain,” says Dr. Black.
Start dimming the lights and around two hours before bed Resist scrolling social media in bed. If you have to work the night shift or use screens in the evening, you can wear glasses that block blue light or install a blue light filter app on your device.
Maintaining a regular circadian rhythm is critical to healthy sleep. If daytime sleepiness is interfering with your daily activities, you can Sleep disorder. Make an appointment with the INTEGRIS Center for Sleep Disorders in Oklahoma to discuss your symptoms and find a treatment plan to help you sleep better.