What Are Circadian Rhythms?
While it’s common to talk about your “circadian rhythm,” that’s a bit of a misnomer—your body actually has many circadian rhythms. These are the rhythms your body follows to keep its daily cycles functioning properly. The most well-known circadian rhythm—and the one I’ll be focusing on today—is your daily cycle of sleep and wakefulness. But others include cycles to control when you’re hungry, your body’s hormonal activity, and other bodily processes.
Most circadian rhythms naturally follow a 24-hour cycle (“circadian” is actually derived from a Latin phrase meaning “about a day”) and are guided by environmental cues like exposure to daylight, regular meal times, physical activity, and even interactions with other people. These cues are called “zeitgebers” (yes, that’s a real word), with light being considered the most important one.
The Science behind Circadian Rhythms
Your body’s circadian rhythms are governed by an internal “clock” called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), located in the hypothalamus. The SCN comprises 20,000 neurons that are activated when your eyes perceive light.
When this happens, the SCN releases a series of hormones, including cortisol, which help you wake up and be fully alert at the right times.
Your body also uses other zeitgebers in your environment to determine what time of day (or night) it is and to sync up your natural rhythms accordingly.
When Your Rhythms Are Off Balance
In a completely natural environment, your body’s internal clock would normally be totally dialed in. But in the 21st-century world we live in today, there are many things that can throw your rhythms off balance. Things like excessive screen time, working the graveyard shift, and environmental stressors can all contribute to knocking your circadian rhythms out of whack.
Your natural rhythms also change as you age. For example, as you get older you’re likely to go to sleep and wake up earlier, even if your teenage self preferred to stay up late and sleep in till noon.
Given this, it’s completely understandable if your circadian rhythms get off balance from time to time. Thankfully, they don’t have to stay that way.
But before we get into the details of how to reset your circadian rhythms, it’s important to touch on sleep medications. While sleep medication, when prescribed properly, may be of limited, short-term help, it’s a very questionable long-term strategy. And what’s worse, medication won’t actually alter your internal clock. It will only help you manage symptoms; the root cause of your sleep issues will still remain unaddressed.
If you do need a little extra help getting to sleep in addition to the protocols below, you could try camomile tea, valerian root, or melatonin with the help of a practitioner.
How to Reset Your Circadian Rhythms
So what can you do when your body’s internal clockwork gets off? Or what if you need to adjust it because you have new work hours or are moving to a different time zone?
Luckily, you can reset your circadian rhythms, and it’s not as hard as you might think. In fact, the best ways to do this are all simple and free, which means you can start doing any of them right now.
Schedule when you go to bed and get up. It’s important for your body’s natural rhythms that you go to bed and get up at the same time each day, so set a schedule and stick to it. Over time, your body will adjust to the new schedule and learn when it needs to fall asleep and wake up. Just make sure you keep to your schedule as much as possible on weekends and vacations too.
Gradually change your bedtime. If you need to adjust your internal clock to accommodate a new schedule, do it gradually. You can’t expect to change your body’s rhythms overnight. So if your current bedtime is midnight and you want to move it back to 10:00 p.m., start by going to bed a half-hour earlier for a week. Then move it back by another half-hour for a week, repeating the process until you’re falling asleep at your desired bedtime. And the same process can work for adjusting your waking time too. If you plan ahead of time, there’s no reason to rush, and your body will respond better.
Create a dark sleeping environment. The darker, quieter, and cooler your bedroom is, the better you will sleep. Depending on your circumstances, you can use blackout curtains, a sleeping mask, or even earplugs to help create an optimal sleeping environment.
Exercise. One of the best ways to ensure a good sleep at night is to exercise during the day. Exercise is truly a “wonder drug” for the many health benefits it offers, but in particular, exercise helps boost melatonin production. As for when to work out, it depends on the person. Some people do better exercising in the morning because it gives them extra energy throughout the day. Others wait until later in the day because working out makes them feel tired. Find the time that works best for you. But also note that exercising right before bed may not be a great idea, since it does stimulate your body. It’s better for your natural rhythms to slow down in the late evening approaching bedtime.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Both of these substances can disturb sleep when consumed too close to bedtime. In particular, caffeine has a half-life of five hours, meaning five hours after your last cup of coffee, half of the caffeine is still in your bloodstream. This means you should stick to non-caffeinated drinks for at least 5-7 hours before going to sleep, and ideally cut off all caffeine after 12:00 p.m. And while alcohol may make you feel drowsy when you drink it, having a few drinks in the evening actually disrupts your sleep cycle and results in poor-quality sleep; you’d be better off avoiding the stuff entirely.
Limit screen time at night. Blue light from your computer or smartphone screen restricts the production of melatonin, which can disrupt your circadian rhythms. The best option is to put away your devices and stop watching TV at least two hours before you go to bed. If you must use a device, consider using blue-light blocking glasses.
Sleep is among your body’s most important internal processes, and when your circadian rhythms get off balance, it’s not fun or healthy. It’s my hope the tips I shared with you today can help you if your natural rhythms need a reset." (M. Hyman, M.D.)