The Circadian Rhythm
In today’s day and age where ‘hustle culture’ is encouraging people to prioritise productivity over all else, it can be easy to forget how important it is to maintain a good circadian rhythm. But as tempting as it is to sacrifice sleep for a better work/life balance, it’s time we give it the attention it deserves.
Why is it important?
The circadian rhythm regulates the production of hormones throughout a 24-hour cycle, making us feel awake in the morning and increasingly tired throughout the day. External and internal cues like light, physical activity and food intake help to maintain it. The circadian rhythm also plays a role in other parts of our body like metabolism, mental health and the immune system, giving us even more of a reason to keep it in check.
How to reset and maintain it?
So, if maintaining your circadian rhythm is important for many of your body’s vital functions, how exactly can you do this?
- Routine: Having a consistent sleep schedule, even on days off, will make it easier to fall asleep and wake up at the right time. If you’re changing your routine, it’s best to make gradual, weekly adjustments of 30-minute increments rather than making any sudden changes.
- Exercise: To improve the quality of sleep, exercise is important as it helps with our melatonin production—a hormone that’s produced in the brain in response to darkness and helps with sleep. When you should exercise depends on whether it makes you feel more energetic (in which case morning is the best) or tired (in which case evening is best).
- Sunlight: Sunlight is a strong external cue that influences our body’s internal clock and, therefore, our circadian rhythm. Getting sunlight exposure, especially early in the day, will help to reinforce this cue so your internal clock stays in time.
- Screen time: If you lie in bed looking at your phone, the light from the screen can confuse your brain and reduce melatonin production. This can lead to disrupted sleep and, if done consistently, a disruption to our circadian rhythm.
- Avoid caffeine: As a stimulant, having caffeine too close to your bedtime can keep you from being able to fall asleep and, if done regularly, affect your circadian rhythm.
- Naps: If possible, avoid naps all together, but if one is necessary keep them to 30 minutes or less in the early afternoon. Too long or too late increases the likelihood that you’ll be too alert to fall asleep at your usual time.
- Bedroom environment: To give yourself the best chance at good quality sleep, ensure you have a calm bedroom environment and good quality bedding. Learn more in our Time for Bed blog here.
When there’s a problemThere are many things that can impact our circadian rhythm, like erratic work shifts, jet lag and mental health conditions. In some cases, you can improve your sleep by yourself by following a regular schedule. However, it’s important to contact a doctor if, for a prolonged period, you struggle to get adequate sleep each night, can’t fall asleep or wake up easily, wake up several times a night, or feel very tired during waking hours. If in any doubt, it’s always best to play it safe and see a doctor.