We are naturally programmed to be active during the day and to fall asleep at night. This pattern is maintained by the circadian rhythm. However, due to a lot of factors that affect the circadian rhythm, most people have problems with falling asleep or being awake at the right time.
A disruption in the circadian rhythm can affect mental health, mood, energy levels, body weight, and productivity. Therefore, resetting the circadian rhythm is a good way to keep your health in check.
This blog post will help you understand the basics of the circadian rhythm, why it matters, and show you how to reset your circadian rhythm.
The Circadian Rhythm: Understanding the Role of Light
The circadian rhythm is your body’s biological clock that controls the sleep-wake cycle. Your body is naturally wired to fall asleep and wake up within the same window of time each day. The circadian rhythm is the master clock that keeps this schedule in check.
A group of neurons called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), located in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, control your circadian rhythm. By responding to certain signals, the SCN regulates the release of hormones, such as melatonin, which plays an important role in the sleep-wake cycle.
Apart from the SCN, there are secondary circadian clocks present in most organs of the body. These are referred to as “peripheral clocks.” Peripheral clocks are in constant communication with the SCN. The SCN works together with peripheral clocks to regulate the circadian rhythm.
The circadian clock responds to a number of signals. They are collectively referred to as “zeitgebers” (German term for “synchronizer”). You can think of zeitgebers as external cues that influence your circadian rhythm. They include light, body temperature, eating habits, exercise, temperature, and medications. Light is by far the strongest zeitgeber of the circadian clock.
Let’s see how light affects the circadian clock. At night, darkness stimulates the circadian clock to trigger the release of melatonin, a hormone produced in the pineal gland. Melatonin promotes sleep and is the main hormone that maintains the circadian rhythm.
During the day, light-sensitive receptors in the eye detect light and relay this information to the brain, which responds by slowing down the release of melatonin. This promotes wakefulness and helps you to stay alert.
New research has shown that the role of light in regulating the circadian clock goes beyond controlling melatonin levels. For instance, by stimulating multiple brain regions, light contributes to building up the body’s homeostatic drive. Homeostatic drive, or sleep pressure, refers to the increase in the urge to sleep as the day progresses.
According to Dr. Samer Hattar, Chief of the Section on Light and Circadian Rhythms at the National Institute of Mental Health, light also impacts your hormone levels, energy levels, mood, appetite, and mental health.
How to Reset Your Circadian Rhythm
In this guide, we’ll explore both interventions that help you adjust your circadian rhythm and those that help you maintain it. Keep in mind that good sleep habits begin with good sleep hygiene.
Here are the steps you can take to reset your circadian rhythm.
1. Establish a Regular Sleep Routine
If you want to reset your circadian rhythm, go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Your body will get used to this sleep schedule. It’s important to stay consistent with the routine, throughout the weekdays and weekends.
In the beginning, you might find it hard to adjust the time you fall asleep. A good way to start is by controlling the time you wake up. Set your alarm to wake you up at the same time every day as you get your body to master your desired sleep time.
At the same time, avoid taking naps during the day or limit your naps to no more than 90 minutes. Naps can interfere with your body’s sleep patterns and may cause sleep problems that disrupt your circadian rhythm.
2. Properly Timed Exposure to Light
Exposing yourself to light at just the right time is an effective way to reset your circadian rhythm. Get some sunlight in the morning within 30-60 minutes after waking up and again later in the afternoon prior to sunset. If you wake up before the sun is out and you want to stay awake, turn on artificial lights, ideally from above..
Apart from sunlight, you can also expose yourself to certain forms of light that mimic sunlight. Bright light therapy, a form of therapeutic light exposure, is used to treat circadian rhythm disorders such as delayed sleep phase disorders (DSPD) in shift workers.
Light therapy devices such as lightboxes and sunlight simulators are available for home use. Ensure you speak with your physician about the exposure level and the best time to use these devices.
3. Control Your Use of Electronic Devices at Night
Electronic devices, such as smartphones, televisions, and laptops, are common culprits that contribute to a disruption of the circadian rhythm. These devices emit blue light. Blue light interferes with melatonin production, leading to a lack of sleep.
If you work a night shift or must be on the computer late into the night, experts recommend using blue-light glasses. Blue-light glasses block blue light and reduce the effect of late-night screen time on your sleep quality.
4. Time Your Meals Appropriately
Your gut forms part of the peripheral clocks that regulate your circadian rhythm. Eating heavy meals before your bedtime can affect sleep onset and quality of sleep. It’s important to plan your meal times with your sleep habits in mind.
To get the best sleep, experts recommend that you eat your last meal of the day at least 4-6 hours before your bedtime. Your sleep can benefit a lot from circadian rhythm fasting, which involves taking all your meals within a certain window of time, typically during the day when your metabolism is highest.
5. Exercise Regularly
Sleep and exercise share a huge connection. Sleep improves your energy levels, thereby raising your strength and endurance, while exercise can help you get better sleep. If you want to reset your circadian rhythm, try incorporating regular exercise into your schedule.
As with everything else, the timing and type of exercise matter a lot. Heavy workouts late in the night can affect sleep quality and duration. Research shows that vigorous activity performed less than an hour before bedtime delays sleep onset and interferes with sleep efficiency.
6. Limit Caffeine Intake Late in the Day
Caffeine is a stimulant that gives your brain the energy boost it needs to stay active. However, studies show that caffeine has a half-life of about five hours. This means that it might take up to five hours for the effects of caffeine to wear off.
Consuming caffeine late in the evening, as much as six hours before bed, can disrupt sleep. If you’re seeking to reset your circadian rhythm, you’ll need to re-consider when you drink caffeinated beverages.
7. Limit Alcohol Consumption and Cigarette Smoking
Most people say alcohol consumption makes them fall asleep faster. But alcohol may throw your internal body clock off-balance by disrupting the normal sleep cycles, affecting the quality of your sleep, and making you sleep in the following day as you nurse the hangover.
Alcohol consumption has also been shown to trigger or exacerbate sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, which makes it hard for you to get good sleep at night. Chronic alcohol consumption, on the other hand, lowers your circadian clock genes, causing dysregulation in your circadian rhythm.
Additionally, cigarette smoking affects your sleep pattern due to the nicotine contained in cigarettes. Nicotine delays sleep onset, causes sleep disturbances, and suppresses rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
8. Optimize Your Sleeping Environment
A good sleeping environment is cool, dark, quiet, and free from other distractions. Optimizing your sleeping environment will help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
A few ways you can create a suitable sleeping environment include:
- Ensure your room is cool enough: For you to fall asleep, your body temperature needs to drop by up to 1-3 degrees.
- Don’t use bright lights in your room: Darkness is a good signal that it’s time to sleep. Keep your room dark enough or wear an eye mask in bed.
- Keep electronic devices away from your room: Apart from emitting blue light, electronic devices are sources of distraction that may keep you up at night.
9. Wind Down at the End of Each Day
It’s easier to fall asleep when your body is relaxed and your mind is stress-free. Whether you read a book, practice meditation, or listen to some smooth jazz, relaxation activities will help you drift into sleep faster and get better quality sleep overall.
10. Use Sleep-Inducing Supplements
Several sleep-promoting supplements are available on the market. However, you should only use supplements after you’ve exhausted behavior changes, for short-term temporary measures, or as recommended by your healthcare provider.
One of the most common sleep-inducing supplements is melatonin. The body naturally produces melatonin to help you fall asleep. But if the timing of your body’s melatonin production doesn’t align with the sleep-wake cycle you need, melatonin supplements can help you reset your circadian rhythm.
Melatonin supplements are especially valuable for managing shift-work sleep disorders and jet lag in travelers who traverse different time zones. Other supplements that can improve your sleep include magnesium threonate, magnesium bisglycinate, and theanine.
The most important thing to consider when using these supplements is appropriate timing. Although they are available over-the-counter, ensure you consult with a medical professional or sleep specialist for advice on how to use these supplements and whether you need them in the first place
Reset Your Circadian Rhythm to Optimize Sleep
The circadian rhythm is your body's master clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle to keep you on a regular schedule. This cycle is regulated by daylight and darkness as well as a host of other factors. To function at your optimum level, your circadian rhythm needs to be in sync with the external environment and your body’s physiological processes.
The bad news is that modern life disrupts your circadian rhythm in different ways. Fortunately, there are things you can do to get your circadian rhythm back on track and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Get familiar with how to reset your circadian rhythm to start living a healthier life. To ensure you’re getting the right results, you can leverage wearable technology to monitor your progress.
If you want to optimize your sleep and your overall health, sign up with Vital today. Vital helps you make sense of data from all your wearables, giving you all the useful insights that you need. You can also challenge your friends or join communities and grow together.