Circadian Rhythm – What It Is and How to Repair It
Your body is an open system, and the relationship between our bodies and our external environments is stronger than people realize. Part of that relationship includes the body’s relationship with the sun. Our bodies undergo physiological processes in rhythm with cycle of day and night. The collection of processes that are tied to the 24 day and night cycle is called the circadian rhythm, also known as “the biological clock”.
The Circadian Rhythm
So how do our bodies know what time it is? Turns out the body is pretty smart. Living creatures have an internal biological clock that coordinates biological activity with the day-night cycle. The body takes external clues to maintain its accuracy in tracking the day. It’s easy to guess what the biggest external clue is. Could it be that great big ball of fire in the sky that comes and goes every day? Yes, it could be.
Sunlight is the great indicator. The presence of it means it is day time. The lack of it means it is night time. Skin tissue can detect the presence (or lack of) sunlight, and depending on the stimulus received, can communicate the appropriate information to other parts of the body for regulation of metabolic and hormonal activity.
Sunlight – great – but say you are a graduate student who practically lives in an underground lab and rarely gets the privilege of seeing the light of day? Well, this can upset your circadian rhythm. See, the body is pretty accurate when it comes to keeping tabs on the day, but it does not run exactly 24 hours if we do not receive sufficient daily signals from the environment (ie, sunlight). If you stay trapped in a cave (or cubicle) for enough time, your circadian rhythm can become skewed.
The Cons of Modern Living
So why does this matter? I’m sure you are already vaguely familiar with the importance of sleep. A skewed biological clock can make it more difficult to fall asleep and wake up appropriately, as your circadian rhythm regulates your body’s secretion of the stress hormone cortisol and the sleep hormone melatonin.
As a result of our modern lifestyles, we tend to stay awake longer, get less sunlight, and sleep less than is appropriate for our health. Many of us have to wake up for work before the sun rises, usually via an alarm clock. We get to work and drink stimulants like caffeine to stay awake and alert in the mornings. After a hefty lunch meal we tend to crash and get foggy, which results in the ingestion of more caffeine. We get home and stay up late in front of computer, phone, and television screens that emit blue light far after the sun goes down. These habits result in imbalances in our hormone production.
The bottom line is: if you are getting inadequate sleep and have poor sleep quality, you are not balancing the cycles of the body. That imbalance can lead to health complications over time (in a large part due to excessive stress).
Habits to Repair Your Circadian Rhythm
We live in a modern world full of electronics and technology that is unavoidable, but don’t fear! There are still concrete and tangible methods that can be used to ensure we get the highest quality sleep we can through a healthy and balanced circadian rhythm.
- Turn off artificial lights an hour before bed time: You’ve probably heard that electronic devices emit blue light. Sunlight, which hosts a wide range of light color wavelengths, emits blue light as well. So what is the result of our eyes detecting blue light from electronics after sunset? Our bodies are tricked to think that it is still day time! This means we are still producing stress hormones to keep us awake and alert, even though we ought to be winding down the day hormones and start producing sleep hormones.
- Go to sleep and wake up in a regular schedule: In this post, we’ve been talking about the circadian rhythm. That’s just what it is, a rhythm. Our modern lifestyles can vary significantly based on our civic and social responsibilities. I wake up for work at 5:30 am, while some wake up as early as 4 am and some as late as 9 am. This is fine, as long as you go to bed around the same time and wake up around the same time every day and get adequate sleep. Your circadian rhythm should be balanced.
- Meditate before getting in bed: The benefits of meditation before bed should be pretty obvious. It is definitely useful for those who tend to have racing thoughts when they try to lie down to sleep. Meditation allows you to observe those thoughts independent of your own bias, and let them go appreciatively. There are plenty of resources on the internet to learn more about meditation.
- If you must use electronics, download programs that filter out blue light: Sometimes it is unrealistic to avoid electronics entirely at night. I certainly continue to use electronics way passed sunset. To help assuage the effects of blue light, I use the program f.lux to block blue light coming out from the monitors of my computer. There are free programs and apps available that will function the same way for phones and other electronics. While these programs exist, it’s best to just avoid them altogether before bed.
- Do some yoga poses that are designed to help you sleep: Yoga isn’t always about standing on one leg with your other leg crossed, while twisting impossibly to one side with pretzeled arms. There are yoga poses designed to help you relax and sleep, too. Take 5-10 minutes before bed to wind down from the day, utilizing a couple of these poses. My personal favorites are the upside down relaxation pose and child’s pose. If you want to follow a particular routine, there are plenty of yoga resources on the internet. I’m no Yogi.
There you go, five solid habits that will help you sleep better and balance your body’s natural daily rhythm. If you continue to study the body and how it works, you begin to realize a certain pattern. The key to holistic health and wellness lies in balance. Eating a nutritious, balanced diet. Getting exercise balanced with adequate rest. Balancing excessive stress with plenty of R & R. If there is one thing to remember about health, it’s that the foundation of it lies in balance.