Most of us aren’t getting enough sleep, and that’s largely thanks to our 24/7, screen-addicted lifestyles. Of course, we’ve built an entire industry around fixing this. There are hundreds of apps, devices, and products purporting to help us sleep better. But, few of these address the real issue. The focus of sleep has shifted towards circadian health and its optimization, not only for sleep but for all the brain and body systems that are controlled by the circadian clock. Our bodies run on circadian rhythms; if we follow these natural cycles, we sleep at night to put our bodies into recovery mode and are awake and alert during the day. But just what are circadian rhythms and how do they affect us?
WHAT IS A CIRCADIAN RHYTHM?
These are physical, mental, and behavioral processes that occur on a daily cycle. Although they’re controlled by the hypothalamus, they’re significantly impacted by light and darkness. By affecting us at a cellular level, these cycles affect how we feel every day. Sleep, of course, is the most obvious expression of a circadian rhythm. But circadian rhythms affect nearly every organ in the body, from our skin and hair to our liver and intestines.
Our bodies are at their best when they’re allowed to naturally follow these cycles. Anything that disrupts our circadian rhythms – like staying up late or experiencing jetlag – can throw us off. We thrive on regular daily schedules, whether that’s eating or sleeping and waking at the same time. That’s because our bodies can’t handle too much at once. For example, we can’t digest food while we sleep. Each bodily process works best at a certain time – by cycling through different states each day, we give our bodies time to rest and reset.
HOW ARE CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS RELATED TO SLEEP?
These cycles determine our sleep patterns by controlling the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin; we produce more melatonin at night to help us fall asleep. Light from devices like smartphones interfere with the process; that’s why many people use supplements. But this is just one factor in the sleep equation.
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Because melatonin is controlled by light exposure, how you use light each day will affect your sleep. Ideally, we would only be exposed to light when the sun’s out and have complete darkness at night. That’s not practical, but you can try to mimic this by:
- Disconnecting from electronic devices an hour before going to sleep
- Sleeping with blackout curtains or eyeshades
- Getting outside for some sun – it especially helps you to wake up in the morning
- Wearing anti-blue-light glasses
- Using alarm clocks that ease you awake with sunrise-mimicking light patterns over 30 minutes
Many experts now believe that when we eat is more important than what we eat for controlling our metabolic processes. Perhaps that’s why so many people are turning to intermittent fasting, where people eat in “feeding windows” of eight to 10 hours each day without restricting the types of food they eat. The key factor here is timing. By eating during the day and fasting at night, we’re not disrupting our circadian rhythms by forcing our bodies to digest food while we sleep. The result? A better night’s rest. If you want a more sleep-friendly diet, try:
- Limiting caffeine after 3PM
- Not eating two hours before bed
- Limiting alcohol – or liquids in general – at night
Thanks to our circadian rhythms, our body temperature drops after dark to help us sleep. That’s why most of us can’t sleep when we’re too hot. Ideally, our sleeping environments should be around 15°C-22°C (65°F-70°F). Air-conditioning (or heating) is the easiest way to do this, but it’s not exactly environmentally friendly. Another idea is to use smart technology like the Eight Sleep mattress which warms or cools according to your body temperature.
WHAT ABOUT JETLAG?
“Jetlag is a circadian rhythm disorder,” says Mickey Beyer-Clausen, founder of Timeshifter, an app designed to help you beat jetlag, and winner of “Wellness App of the Year” in the Destination Deluxe Awards 2019. “It’s a temporary disruption of the 24-hour rhythms in your brain and body. Because our sleep/wake cycle shifts so quickly on a flight, our circadian rhythms can’t keep up, leaving us tired, aggravated, and unfocused.
Most frequent travelers swear by failsafe jetlag cures, but most of these don’t really work because they don’t directly affect our circadian rhythms. “In jetlag, it’s not a lack of light that causes the circadian disorder, but the disruption in the timing of light and dark exposure,” says Beyer-Clausen. “When we jump across time zones, the light-dark cycle changes too quickly for our clocks to keep up with and our circadian rhythms become desynchronized from the new location.”
The key to beating jetlag, then, is getting the right light exposure at the right time. Travelers can use Timeshifter to build personalized jetlag plans based on sleep patterns, chronotype, itinerary, and other factors to get the precise light cues they need to acclimatize to their new time zone.
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RHYTHMS OF LIFE
Understanding our bodies’ circadian rhythms is the key to sleeping better – and allowing our bodies to function better, generally. While our modern lifestyles make it tricky to follow these cycles naturally, you can certainly take steps to align yourself with your body’s circadian rhythms.