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And why is circadian rhythm important for good health?

Some mornings you rise feeling a million bucks; life is great and you’re in your ideal flow state. Other mornings you rise feeling as though you were attacked by a ninja in your sleep. Yet, upon checking your home, there’s no evidence of a ninja break-in. You’ve just had a shocking night of shut eye. Turns out your lousy mood is a by-product of your circadian rhythm being out of sync. It happens to the best of us.

So, let’s find out; what is circadian rhythm? How does circadian rhythm work? What happens when your circadian rhythm falls out of sync? And, what you can do to maintain your circadian rhythm.

What is circadian rhythm?

Derived from the Latin phrase “circa diem” meaning “around a day”, your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that runs as part of your body’s internal clock. Your circadian rhythm influences essential bodily functions and processes, especially those related to the sleep-wake cycle. Specifically, it helps you to sleep when it’s dark and rise with the sun. When in sync, circadian rhythm promotes consistent and restorative sleep, adequate hormone release, proper digestion, and regular body temperature. When alignment falls short, significant sleeping problems, like insomnia, can occur. 

How does circadian rhythm work?

In an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a master clock receives light signals from the eye’s retina to regulate activity throughout the body. One of the most important roles of the SCN is to control the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. When there is less light at night, the SCN relays a message to the brain to produce more melatonin so you feel drowsy. During the day, production of melatonin is paused so you’re awake and alert. Signals vary throughout the day which is why your circadian rhythm aligns with the cycle of the sun. Light is the most powerful influence on your circadian rhythm.

What happens when your circadian rhythm isn’t in sync?

When the integrity of your circadian rhythm is compromised, diabetes, obesity and depression become potential health issues. Obviously, these won’t occur overnight, but as a long-term risk. Changes that can disrupt your circadian rhythm include:

  • Travel/jetlag

 Passing through time zones is an absolute nightmare for your circadian rhythm. Your body clock is set on your initial time zone as you move through and into different time zones. The more time zones you pass through, the more confused your body clock will be. There’s no avoiding it, jet lag is one problem you just have to wait out.

  • Extra sleep

Napping too much during the daytime hours is a regrettable decision if you let a nap surpass 20 minutes. Honestly, guys, if you’re struggling with energy throughout the day, push through and take an early mark at bedtime. Naptime drowsiness and brain fog are the absolute worst.

  • Screen time

Time spent face-to-face with a screen signals to your brain that it should be alert and awake. Television, laptop, iPhone; it doesn’t matter the type of screen. if you want to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, disconnect from all screens 2-3 hours before bed.

  • Night shifts

No one likes them, and now we have a medically sane reason why. When you’re working through the night, you’re forcing yourself to sleep during the day, when your body thinks you should be awake. It causes complete confusion for your circadian rhythm. Continued night shifts over time can even cause shift work disorder, a condition characterised by symptoms of insomnia or excessive sleepiness.

What can you do to maintain your circadian rhythm?

To give your circadian rhythm the best chance of performing optimally:

  • Expose yourself to natural light, especially during the early hours of the day to reinforce its strongest circadian cue.
  • Follow a consistent sleep routine. Sporadic changes can hinder your body’s ability to stabilise its circadian rhythm.
  • Exercise daily, to make it easier for you to fall asleep at night.
  • Avoid caffeine. Stimulants can keep you awake and throw off the natural balance between sleep and wakefulness.
  • Reduce light exposure before bed to avoid giving your body the cue to be awake.
  • Keep your naps short. Long naps can disrupt your sleep schedule.