Are you getting enough sleep? Have you wondered what regulates our sleep cycles?
Everything you need to know about your Circadian Rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is our sleep-wake pattern over the course of a 24-hour day.
The circadian rhythm helps control our daily schedule for sleep and wakefulness. In other terms, it acts as the body’s natural alarm system. The circadian rhythm is influenced by light and dark, as well as many other factors. The brain receives signals based on your environment (light is the most sensitive stimulus) and activates certain hormones, which will alter your body temperature, and regulates your metabolism to keep you alert or draw you to sleep.
Some of us may experience disruptions to our circadian rhythm because of external factors(work, stress, lifestyle) or sleep disorders. Maintaining healthy habits and good sleep hygiene can help us respond better to one of the most vital natural rhythms of the body.
There are several components that make up the body’s circadian rhythm
First, the cells in our brain respond to light and dark via the optic nerve. The eyes capture such changes in the environment and convey signals to the brain informing when it’s time to be sleepy or awake. This then alters your alertness.
Hormones play a key role in regulating our circadian rhythm. Melatonin and cortisol may increase or decrease as part of your circadian rhythm. Melatonin is a hormone that makes you sleepy, and your body releases more of it at night and suppresses it during the day. Cortisol can make you more alert, and your body produces more of it in the morning.
Hormones that also play a role in alertness and circadian rhythm include:
Body temperature and metabolism are also vital parts of the circadian rhythm. The body temperature of individual drops during sleep and rises during awake hours. A cold environment would be conducive for sleep. The circadian rhythm may also adjust based on our work hours, physical activity, stress and anxiety, and other habits or lifestyle choices.
The circadian rhythm should be maintained at a consistent level. Sometimes it is not possible to maintain a consistent circadian rhythm. This can be due to:
- Overnight or off-hours work shifts that go against the natural light and dark times of day work shifts with erratic hours
- Travel that spans the course of one or more different time zones
- A lifestyle that encourages late-night hours or early wake times
- Stress levels and mental health conditions
- Health conditions like dementia, head injuries, or blindness
- Poor sleep habits — not having a regular sleep schedule, eating or drinking late at night, watching screens too close to bedtime, or not having a conducive sleeping space
Why is the circadian rhythm important to our health?
Maintaining a proper circadian rhythm is vital to health. If there’s a disruption to the circadian rhythm, you may struggle to get the proper amount of sleep, which would result in both short-term and long-term effects on your health.
Long-term disruption to the circadian rhythm can affect:
- Cardiovascular system
- Gastrointestinal system
You may also be at an increased risk of developing diabetes, obesity, and mental health conditions.
Short-term disruptions to your circadian rhythm may result in:
- Memory issues
- Changes in your hormone cycle that may impact weight, fertility, energy levels
- Shifts in your body temperature
Are you experiencing disruptions to your circadian rhythm currently? Here are some tips for getting your circadian cycle back on track:
- Try to adhere to a sleep cycle routine each day.
- Spend more time outside in the sunlight to boost wakefulness.
- Daily exercise — 20 or more minutes of aerobic exercise is generally recommended.
- Sleep in an environment that promotes rest such as proper ambient lighting, a comfortable temperature, aromatherapy and a supportive mattress.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine in the evenings.
- Reduce your screen time well before bedtime and try engaging in an activity such as reading a book or meditating.
- Avoid naps late in the afternoon or evening.
When to seek medical advice from your doctor
There can be several reasons you may want to talk to your doctor about an issue with your circadian rhythm. If you are experiencing one of these issues for a prolonged period, consider making a doctor’s appointment:
- Having trouble achieving adequate sleep every night
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Awaken several times a night and fail to get good quality sleep
- Has trouble waking up
- Feel extremely tired during waking hours
Take home message is that the circadian rhythm is our body’s way of regulating your 24 hour body clock, which helps you operate on a daily basis. Practicing good habits, living healthy, and having an active lifestyle will help regulate this important component of our body.