The highly complex, smoothly integrated mind and body systems humans enjoy evolved in tune to the approximately 24-hour period that encompasses day and night. We are fine-tuned down to the molecular level to operate in time with this daily, or circadian, rhythm, with even cellular functions being timed according to this cycle. Disrupting the circadian rhythm can have serious health consequences, impacting cognitive functioning and mood, as well as increasing the risk of a wide range of diseases and chronic health conditions. Fortunately, resetting your circadian rhythm can be a fairly simple process. Learn how to reset your circadian rhythm to help improve your day-to-day health.
Circadian Rhythm Connected to Overall Health and Well-Being
While many connect the sleep-wake cycle to the circadian rhythm, as essential as good sleep is to good health, there’s much more involved than just the timing of sleep. Your circadian rhythm impacts physical and mental functioning and health on multiple levels. Part of a timing and regulating system made up of biological clocks throughout the body, your circadian rhythm influences the timing of bodily processes, including those involved in your metabolism and in hormone production. Through these actions, the circadian rhythm influences the very mechanics of how the body and mind work, helping to maintain the balance and efficient function that leads to good health.
Thus, when circadian rhythms are disrupted, health can be negatively impacted. Cognitive functioning, including memory and learning, can suffer from circadian rhythm disruption and there is a higher risk of developing depression and other mood-related disorders. Chronic disruption of the circadian rhythm, often a problem for shift workers, especially when shifts rotate between day, evening and overnight, can lead to an increased risk of metabolic system disorders, such as obesity and type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancers, including breast cancer.
How to Reset Your Circadian Rhythm
Light is one of the most powerful of the environmental signals that impact your circadian rhythm. Cycles of light and dark – day and night – play a vital role in maintaining circadian rhythm balance and health. Artificial lighting is a major factor in circadian disruption, making it easy to get out of sync with our more natural rhythms. Another factor is decreased exposure to natural light. Many, even most, of us spend far more time indoors than did previous generations.
Being more mindful of light can help you reset your circadian rhythm. Cells in your brain are directly activated by light via your retinas. Expose yourself to the visual light cues humans have evolved over thousands and thousands of years to respond to. Get outside in the early morning, ideally while doing some physical activity, and for at least a few minutes within half an hour of the sunset. Take advantage of opportunities to expose yourself to natural light, such as sitting near windows when you have to be inside. Tone down your artificial light exposure after the sun goes down, especially during the two hours prior to sleeping.
Sleep and Wake Schedule
Keep regular sleeping and waking hours. Resist the temptation to stay up late and sleep in on days off or weekends. If you struggle to fall asleep, avoid napping during the day. In setting your sleeping and waking times, allow for sufficient sleep plus and additional 30 to 60 minutes for winding down and relaxing to facilitate the shift into sleep. Make sure your sleeping area is as comfortable as you can make it, giving attention to bedding, temperature – not too warm or too chilly – and lighting. Avoid bright lights and electronic devices for at least an hour before bedtime.
Stick to a meal schedule. Your circadian rhythm and metabolic system are tightly connected, so what you eat and when can have an impact. Avoid eating a heavy meal within two hours of bedtime. Be mindful of when and how often you are consuming beverages with caffeine. Limit coffee and other caffeinated beverages to the earlier part of the day. If you’re dealing with a disrupted circadian rhythm, limit alcohol during the evening hours. While it may help you feel drowsy, it can disrupt the later stages of sleep, thereby having a negative impact on your overall circadian rhythm functioning.
For those with a more longstanding circadian disruption problem or those in professions in which disruption is almost unavoidable, such as the medical field, a more aggressive approach may be required. This can include the use of light therapy, which uses lighting that simulates natural light, including sunrise, and melatonin supplements. These are highly customizable approaches, so you may want to consult with a health care professional specializing in sleep issues to develop a program specific to your needs.
Better Timing Can Improve Sleep and Health
Working on resetting your circadian rhythm can yield both improved sleep and health. Expect the process to take time. If you are trying to shift sleep and wake times by hours, make the change gradually, in 15 to 30 minute increments. Once your circadian rhythm is reset, you’ll find that you’re less likely to need an alarm clock to get up. You’ll be more likely to enjoy a better quality of sleep and feel better overall physically and mentally on a day-to-day level.