With so many of us currently self-isolating the usual routines of life have gone completely out of the window. Gone is the reliable rhythm of waking up, hitting the gym or going for a run, getting dressed, going to work, coming home, cooking up a storm, settling down for a relaxing evening or heading out with friends.
It’s a confusing and frightening time, and it’s high time we found a new rhythm!
Sorting out your sleep can be an ongoing battle, but if you’ve ever noticed you tend to wake up at the time your alarm goes off, even when it’s not on, and that you usually feel tired at around the same time each evening, you’re already feeling the benefits of a routine created by your circadian rhythm. Achieving true circadian health is the key to getting amazing sleep, and we’re here to show you how to create exactly that so you can reap all the mental and physical benefits of a healthy sleep pattern…
What Is Circadian Health?
Simply put, your circadian rhythm acts as an internal body clock that’s running 24-7. It’s ticking away at the back of your mind, running in the background and cycling between states of alertness and fatigue at regular intervals. This creates your sleep/wake cycle, which for most people means waking up in the morning and falling asleep at night, with roughly eight hours of sleep taking place.
Yet your circadian rhythm is more complex than a simple wake up/go to sleep state that switches once a day. The majority of adults find their energy dips the most in the middle of the night, some time between 2am and 4am, when they’re (generally) already fast asleep. Most of us also suffer a mid-afternoon dip in energy levels between 1pm and 3pm – this is what causes you to desperately crave a nap after lunch!
The specific timing of these dips in energy will vary, depending on whether you’re a night owl or early bird, and lifestyle factors like working night shifts, or having young children.
When you’re fully rested you likely won’t notice the rises and falls in your circadian rhythm nearly as much. If, however, you’re sleep deprived you’ll really feel the swings between alertness and sleepiness.
Your circadian rhythm is controlled by your hypothalamus, but it is also influenced by external factors in your environment such as the levels of light and darkness. When darkness falls in the evening your eyes signal your hypothalamus that it’s almost time to sleep, and your brain releases melatonin, a hormone that prepares your body for sleep and makes you feel tired.
That’s why you tend to naturally feel tired at night, and energetic during the day; it’s all your circadian rhythm.
What Disrupts Your Circadian Rhythm?
Certain things can throw that healthy rhythm out and leave you feeling tired during the day and wide awake at night. Disruptions to your routine (like suddenly being stuck in self-isolation or lockdown for weeks on end) can wreak havoc on your circadian health.
Stress, anxiety, and other life concerns can easily keep us up at night (as can hobbies, sports events, TV shows, and all-nighters for work or fun). When you start sleeping irregularly it disrupts your circadian rhythm and makes it harder for you to get a decent night’s sleep.
The specific beat of your sleep rhythm naturally changes as you age, and what constitutes circadian health when you’re a child or teenager is vastly different to what we consider sleep hygiene as an adult, and different again to what our bodies need when we’re entering our golden years.
The more attention you pay to your body and the times you feel drowsy or alert, and the more effort you put into creating healthy sleep hygiene habits, the easier you’ll be able to sleep, and the better you’ll feel when you wake.
The Rise Of The Sleep Obsession…
As circadian biologist, Satchin Panda, from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, has said: “Everything cannot happen at once.” Where sleep hygiene is concerned this couldn’t be more true. We cannot be both awake and asleep at the same time! It’s a common theme, as we aren’t capable of sleeping and simultaneously digesting a heavy meal either. This is one reason why eating a big meal right before bed is so bad for you!
Your body needs to rest, repair itself, and ensure everything is in peak working order. To do this, it works to a schedule – much as we need to do in our working lives, or when caring for children. If you don’t have a schedule, everything goes off the rails; important things are left undone, what is done isn’t done as well as it could or should have been, and everything seems to take a lot longer than it would if you just got yourself organised!
Perhaps it’s the growing obsession we all have with maximising productivity and efficiency, but circadian health has gained a lot more attention in recent years, with 2017’s Nobel Prize for Medicine awarded to scientists who discovered the gene that regulates the circadian day-night cycle. Popular books like The Sleep Revolution by Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, and The Circadian Code by Satchin Panda, are also changing the way we think about sleep and how much we prioritize healthy sleep hygiene.
Your sleep rhythm is far more complex than you might think. Almost every single brain chemical, hormone, and digestive enzyme in your body has been pre-programmed to peak and dip at certain times of the day and night. It’s all a meticulously choreographed dance that ensures the various functions of your body are carried out at the best possible times.
That ticking clock is your circadian rhythm, and when it stops, slows, or skips a beat, your health suffers for it.
Every cell and organ in your body has its own circadian clock. It’s like the reminders you set on your phone to make sure you pick the kids up on time, remember to put a load of washing in, and don’t leave your dinner in the oven for too long. Your circadian clocks are telling your brain when to sleep, but they’re also telling your gut when to digest food, and your heart when it needs to slow down or speed up how much blood it’s pumping out.
Why Is Creating A True Circadian Rhythm Vital?
Ensuring your circadian health isn’t only vital for your sleep hygiene and ensuring you’re well rested. That rhythm affects a whole host of systems in your body including your stomach, intestines, and gut. In fact, your entire digestive system runs on your circadian rhythm. Your stomach (just like your brain) shuts down late at night. This is why we’re not hungry when we’re asleep and can happily go hours between dinner and breakfast the following morning, while skipping lunch during the day leaves you starving, cranky, and a little bit shaky.
Your intestines and gut are also sleeping at night. Which means they don’t move any of the food you’ve eaten down your digestive tract. When you eat late at night it causes two things as a result:
- Food sits in your digestive system all night, unmoving.
- Your stomach experiences a buildup and begins to produce acid.
By contrast, when you wake in the morning your circadian rhythm very quickly kicks in. You start to feel hungry, you swiftly need to make a bowel movement, and your mouth begins to produce saliva that neutralizes all that built-up acid.
So your circadian health not only ensures you get a decent night’s sleep, it also ensure proper digestion. When it’s out of balance you will struggle to sleep, you’ll develop indigestion and acid reflux.
How To Get Amazing Sleep…
There are a few really simple steps you can take to improve your circadian health.
Start the day with a protein-rich breakfast. Protein is essential for getting through the day with the energy and strength you need. If your mornings are hectic, or you’re a vegetarian, try a protein smoothie as the perfect morning pick-me-up
Soak up some sun. Vitamin D absorbed directly from the sun is essential for both your mental and physical health. It’s also one of the major cues your brain uses to regulate your circadian rhythm, so get out in the sunshine first thing every morning for a cup of tea, or to have your breakfast, and you’re off to a great start. Spending a full hour in the sunshine every day (with the proper sun protection of course!) will really give your circadian health a boost!
Exercise every day. This is not only good for you physically, the act of raising your body’s core temperature and doing a cardio workout each day will help you sleep more soundly at night. If you’re not able to exercise for health reasons, another option is a regular sauna which gives you some of the same benefits.
Keep your stress low. This goes without saying really – nobody wants to be stressed! – but the world is incredibly stressful at the best of times and that really takes its toll. While effectively managing stress is an ongoing (usually slow) process, shifting your mindset to a more positive, optimistic one can genuinely help you sleep!
Get creative! Bizarrely, a psychological study has shown that we are most creative at times when we are tired! Keep a notebook handy by your bed, and try to do something creative just before you go to sleep so you have an outlet for all that creative flair and it doesn’t keep you up at night.
Bedtime! Having a routine is essential. When you establish a set time that you go to bed and adhere to it regardless of the situation, it will change your circadian rhythm permanently.
Only sleep at night. While there are extenuating circumstances, try to avoid sleeping at any time other than ‘bedtime’ if you can. Going to bed around 10pm and aiming for at least 7 hours sleep is ideal.
Get comfy! Keep your bedroom clean, tindy, and clutter-free. Ensure your bed itself is as comfortable as possible, and the atmosphere of the room is also to your liking. Removing any unnecessary lights, noises and blankets will also help.
Hello darkness, my old friend. Keeping your bedroom in total darkness is another great way to boost your sleep pattern. Like spending time in the daylight in the morning, blocking all light from your bedroom at night is vital. Get blackout drapes if necessary!
If you’re struggling to sleep and poor circadian health is affecting your daily life, these tips should quickly help you find your groove and improve your snooze sessions. If you’re still struggling, we can arrange an online telemedical appointment for you to speak to a physician about the issue…