With all the conveniences of modern life, you would think our bodies would have evolved too. So it may come as a shock – with 24/7 access to work, shopping and entertainment – that humans continue to be governed by the same internal rhythms as most animals, birds and even plants. This is nothing new – our natural wiring is as old as time, and no Smartphone or snooze alarm can change that. We must keep this in mind in order to sleep well and awake refreshed. If you aren’t familiar with Circadian rhythm, now is a good time to understand your body’s organic rhythm’s alarm clock.
Circadian Rhythms and Sleep Cycles
The body’s “master clock,” our Circadian rhythm keeps us on a regular sleep and wake cycle, serving as our built-in timekeeper. This master clock resides in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, and receives signals from the eyes, which means that the light processed during the day/night cycle plays a key role how your body revitalizes.
What Can Affect Your Circadian Rhythm
Circadian rhythms are an essential factor in regulating your sleep and wake patterns, and impact your behavioral, physical and mental health. Melatonin, a hormone that induces sleepiness, is controlled in part by this master clock in our brains. When we perceive darkness, the master clock is triggered to release melatonin. The longer we fight our natural sleep cycles, the greater impact it can have on our health and well-being. There are many factors that can affect your Circadian rhythm:
- Daylight is the primary influencer of Circadian rhythms. Studies have shown that changing the duration and patterns of day and night (or light and dark) can actually change bodily functions on the molecular level.
- Working Night or Second Shift. Employees who work the night shift (nurses and police officers, for example) often experience variations in their Circadian rhythms. Working at night, you are fighting against your natural tendencies to sleep or be sleepy while it is dark outside.
- Traveling Across Time Zones. Long gone are days of trans-Atlantic cruises; travel that had taken days or even weeks now can be achieved in the course of a few hours. That said, jet lag is a byproduct of modern transport. Even flying from New York to Los Angeles will set you back three hours so you can expect to be awake earlier than your west coast friends. After a few days, your internal clock will adjust, but exhaustion and confusion from the shift can be hard to deal with.
- Sleep disorders can interfere with your ability to fall and stay asleep. Some are the result of natural processes, such as aging; others are the result of environmental or lifestyle stresses and changes. Circadian rhythm disruption occurs when the normal cycle is interrupted or changed. This type of disruption can affect your psychological health and your ability to function.
Chronic Sleep Disorders and Circadian Rhythms
When sleep disorders are left untreated, they can put you at risk of sleep rhythm syndromes including:
- Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, which involves a person being unable fall asleep in the evening until late at night (after 2 am, usually), and then either getting up late or suffering sleepiness during the day. People with Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome also tend to sleep too little during the week, and then sleep long hours (up to 12 hours is typical) during the weekends. Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome has been associated with depression, as well as weight gain and other physical and mental health issues.
- Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome, by which people typically become sleepy very early in the evening – often as early as 6 pm. Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome also causes people to wake up very early, as early as 1am the following morning, offsetting their clocks drastically making it hard to function.
- Non 24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder occurs when environmental factors interfere with your ability to keep a regular sleep and wake schedule. Long-term, being unable to sleep when you want and need to, leads to disruption in Circadian rhythms.
Adjusting your Circadian Rhythm
In many cases, simple life-style changes can help you adjust your Circadian rhythm back to normal. Practicing good sleep habits, such as limiting caffeine, television and smart phone activity before bed; exercising and maintaining a healthy weight; practicing light discipline (only allowing natural light to affect your sleep); and de-stressing can all contribute to a good night’s sleep for the long-term.
Sleep should be the most natural and restorative part of your life, but if you are experiencing problems with your sleep patterns or Circadian rhythm, it is important to get expert help. If sleep disorders are behind them, the experts at Northwest Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine will work with you to develop an effective treatment plan. Sleep is essential for your health – call Northwest Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine today at (815) 477-7350 for a consultation or request an appointment online today for sweet dreams tomorrow.