Circadian rhythms involve the behavioral, mental and physical changes that occur in a 24-hour period according to the light and dark time cues. Humans and other living organisms have these rhythms, which are created by a variety of physiological factors in the body and triggered by environmental factors that include light. The body’s internal clock is headed by a master clock called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which lies within the hypothalamus.
Purpose of Circadian Rhythms
These biological rhythms regulate body temperature, hormone release, hunger and sleep/wake cycles. Researchers in chronobiology believe that the disruption of these rhythms have a connection with a number of illnesses that include bipolar disorder, depression, diabetes, obesity and seasonal affective disorder. Most commonly, the majority of people experiencing abnormal circadian rhythms develop a sleeping disorder. The master clock, also called the SCN, is situated above the complex network of optic nerves known as the optic chiasm. When visual cues detect an absence of light, the nerves send a message to the brain. The SCN then stimulates the pineal gland to produce melatonin, the hormone that tells the body it is time to prepare for sleep.
The Food Connection
Whether transitioning from one time zone to another across the globe or changing shifts at work, these actions often cause a disruption in biological rhythms. However, there are a number of methods that individuals may use to reset the clock naturally. Food deprivation is one of these options. Going without food for 12 to 16 hours mimics the hours of sleep. The first meal eaten at the end of the fasting period tricks the brain into thinking that morning has arrived. Once making the adjustment, maintain a steady routine of eating throughout each day. However, do not engage in a fast unless approved by a physician. Some medical conditions and medications require that patients routinely eat.
Importance of Natural Light
When working nights, employees often get very little exposure to sunlight. If you are trying to adjust your circadian rhythm, open window curtains and turn on bright lights when awakening. The eyes, brain and SCN then believe a new morning has begun. Conversely, day or night, when ready to go to sleep, make sure the room is dark. Use blinds, lined curtains, earplugs and face masks if necessary. The body then perceives that night time has arrived, melatonin is produced and sleep should come. Once adjusted to the desired hours of sleep, keep the routine going to ensure normalcy. Avoid altering the sleep schedule on days off or weekends.
Sleep Inducing Techniques
One or two hours before bedtime, limit your amount of light exposure. Resist the urge to engage in working on the computer, watching TV, talking or texting on a cell phone. Leave these electronic devices out of the bedroom. Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine advise that the blue light produced by electronics stimulates wakefulness.
When tossing and turning becomes a problem, limit the number of sleep hours. Start with four hours of sleep. Once able to sleep soundly for four hours, increase the time by 15 minute increments until getting at least seven hours of sleep.
Watch the Caffeine
While trying to adjust sleeping patterns, consuming caffeine is often tempting to counteract daytime drowsiness. However, stop caffeine intake after the time of day that would be considered lunchtime. Additionally, avoid anything but a quick power nap during the day.
Travelers have the ability to counteract the effects of jet lag by changing the sleep/wake cycle before boarding the plane. Depending on the specific location, go to bed earlier or wake up later. Staying awake until night time after arriving at the destination also helps make the adjustment to the different time zone.
Try to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week. The activity stimulates the release of anxiety and stress-relieving hormones. However, as exercise increases vital signs and acts as a stimulant, avoid excessive activity right before bedtime.
The breathing and meditating techniques used in yoga provide an overall sense of peace and relaxation. Chamomile, lavender, passionflower or similar fragrant oils in a warm bath also soothe aching muscles and induce relaxation.
Consult with a Physician
If after trying a number of techniques to no avail, ask a physician about taking a herbal preparation, OTC or prescription medication that might include melatonin supplements. However, resist the urge to take more than the prescribed dosage.
Effects of Lunar Rhythms
Research indicates that much like sunlight exposure, the various phases of the moon also commonly affect circadian rhythms and sleep cycles. Nocturnal animals become more active closer to the full moon. Likewise, people may experience more disturbing dreams as the full moon approaches. Others may have difficulty falling or staying asleep. Keep a diary. If lunar rhythms present a problem, sleep aids may become necessary.