Circadian rhythm refers to any biological process which displays an endogenous oscillation of 24-hours. In simpler terms, it refers to your body’s internal biological clock. The term circadian comes from the Latin word circa meaning “around” and diem meaning “day”.
Our biological clocks are governed by a group of interacting molecules throughout the body. A “master clock” in the brain coordinates all the body clocks to keep them in sync with each other. These clocks or circadian rhythms control everything including your body temperature, hormonal secretions, sleep pattern and other biological functions.
And what affects the circadian rhythm?
In addition to physical changes, your circadian rhythm is also influenced by environmental signals such as light and darkness – in fact light is the main cue that signals your biological clocks to get into an active or passive mode.
In some cases, however, despite these physical and environmental cues, the body’s internal clocks do not follow the expected pattern. This can result in sleep disorders such as:
Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder (ASPD) – People affected by ASPD go to bed earlier, typically between 6 PM to 9 PM and wake up between 1 AM to 5 AM. This condition affects about 1% of adult population mainly seniors.
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS) – This is a more common sleep disorder affecting around 15% of teens and adults in US. As opposed to ASPD, people affected by delayed sleep phase syndrome go to bed early in the morning, typically between 1 AM and 4 AM and wake up later during the day.
While the quality of sleep is not affected in these cases, the quality of life surely does suffer. Unusual sleeping patterns can make it difficult for you to accommodate your usual college and work schedules. It can also lead to chronic health problems such as insomnia, depression, bipolar disorder and so on.
Sleep phase disorders can also be a result of traveling across different time zones, commonly known as jetlag. These are temporary conditions and resolve as soon as you are back into a regular routine. However, in cases where the problem persists for a longer time, it becomes important to reset your circadian rhythms.
Natural Ways to Reset your Circadian Rhythm
– Say no to “Naps” – Taking short naps during the day can disrupt your sleeping pattern, making it difficult for you to get sleep in the night.
– Push yourself – Try following a fixed routine. Wake up at the same time every day (ideally during the early morning hours), and go to bed on time. Practicing this on a regular basis will slowly get your body adjusted to the new sleep schedule, thereby regularizing your sleep pattern.
– Adjusting your sleep schedule – If you are suffering from advanced sleep phase disorder, try moving your bedtime an hour ahead each day, until you finally get to the desired time. Do the opposite in case of delayed sleep phase syndrome. Slowly scale back your sleep time by an hour each day, till you reach the desired time.
– Change the Lighting in your rooms – A recent study on ‘effects of light on sleep pattern’ revealed that continued exposure to flashy and bright evening lights can give your body false signals. It can shift your circadian rhythm to a later schedule, thereby messing up your bedtime schedule. Dim lights especially during the evening hours can have a calming effect on your body and keep your biological clock in control.
– Eating & Exercising – Heavy meals and strenuous exercises should be reserved for the morning hours. Avoid ending your day with these activities. To reset your circadian rhythm, the first thing to do is stick to a light dinner. Also, do not exercise in the late evening hours as exercising releases endorphins, which put your body in an “active” mode.
If the above tips fail to bring about an improvement in your condition, it’s time to consult your doctor and try some more intensive therapies.
Therapies to Correct Sleep Phase Disorders & Reset your Circadian Rhythm
– Light Therapy – As mentioned above, your biological clock is affected by the presence and absence of light, signaling your bodies to switch ON or switch OFF. Absence of light causes the release of melatonin, a hormone that triggers sleep. During morning hours, the light triggers a biological response that wakes you up. Light therapy mimics this pattern by exposing you to intense but safe amount of light for a specific duration. This has the same effect on our bodies as natural sunlight. Regular sessions of light therapy can correct your sleep-wake cycle.
– Pharmacotherapy – As the name suggests, Pharmacotherapy involves the use of medications to regularize the circadian rhythm. The type and dosage of medicines would depend on the age and health condition of the patient, type of sleep disorder and the intensity of the condition. A lot of doctors prefer giving low dosage of medications that introduce melatonin hormone in the body. Melatonin is the natural hormone that signals the body to get into a sleep mode. In severe cases, sedatives might also be prescribed.
– Chronotherapy – This is a simple process that takes into account your body’s natural circadian rhythm pattern and works with it. As a part of this therapy, instead of retiring early in order to get back on a regular schedule, you would be shifting your bedtime to a later hour every night. It might take several days or weeks to gradually move your ‘retire and rise’ cycle around the physical clock.
Getting your circadian rhythm back on track might seem like a complex process. However, proper medical care and simple lifestyle changes can help you combat this condition effectively and easily.