Tune Your Circadian Rhythm
Feel better, be better…
It’s good to be in sync. Things seem to flow effortlessly, work ain’t such a drag and life is good. Being out of sync though, is not great. Doing the most basic of tasks take a lot of effort, work is unbearable, and life feels like you’re going nowhere.
A big challenge for the developed world is balancing our family, work and societal needs with our own needs and well being. Many of the comforts and conveniences that we take for granted depend on someone having to sacrifice their well being so as to maintain what we’ve become used to.
Likewise many of us sacrifice our well being and health by unconsciously doing things in ways that can knock us out of sync with our body’s rhythms which in the long term can be very detrimental to us.
A central component of our well being is for our circadian rhythm to be in sync with our environment. Being out of sync has serious implications for health, well being and productivity as well as be costly for society in general.
Briefly put, our circadian rhythm regulates our responses to a solar day and regulates when we wake up and when we feel tired enough to sleep. It does a lot more and we’ll go into detail later. What’s important to know right now is that our circadian rhythm has taken time to evolve in our species so that we can better regulate our lives according to the amount (or lack thereof) of daylight. It has done a fantastic job up until the industrial age when artificial light sources have extended our waking hours.
In now days with computers, smartphones and gadgets that all emit light we may have accidentally broken our circadian rhythm and be out of sync with ourselves and environment.
Before the invention of the electronic light bulb most people followed regular waking and sleep cycles that were seldom disrupted. The majority of the world lived an agrarian lifestyle and as such their daily routines were closely aligned to the rising and setting of the sun.
As the industrial age took hold a large amount of the working populations in Europe and America migrated from the farmlands to the industrialised cities hoping to improve their and their families’ prospects. In return workers and their families had to conform to new working practices which were increasingly at odds with the old agricultural regime.
Work hours didn’t necessarily correspond to the old sunrise to sunset model and people found themselves working longer hours and working night shifts. This situation worsened with the invention of the electric light bulb. Due to production demands and the eager adoption of electronic lighting, people were now able to work longer hours and shift work became widespread.
Workers soon began to feel pressured to work longer hours and do more shifts as the competition was stiff and people wanted to succeed. There was a perception that feeling tired wasn’t manly and that you were somehow lazy and not ambitious enough to make it big.
Thomas Edison created much of this bright new world. With regard to the changing relations of work to sleep, the inventor of practical incandescent lighting was not only the father of the night shift. He also took a prominent part in criticizing and even ridiculing sleep as an inefficient and immoral indulgence.
Edison was perhaps the most famous and widely admired American of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a hybrid celebrity renowned for his imaginative genius and his entrepreneurial acumen.
A tireless self promoter whose greatest invention was himself, Edison spent considerable amounts of his own and his staff’s energy in publicising the idea that success depended in no small part on staying awake to stay ahed of the technological and economic competition.Derickson, Alan. Dangerously Sleepy (pp. 4-5). University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Out of Line
It wasn’t long before the effects of overworking and under sleeping started to take their toll on the working population. Although workers and their advocates were successful in getting legislation passed to limit the number of hours they worked, it wasn’t an easy battle. For the rest of the twentieth century there would be various efforts taken across the world to address the issue of working long hours and its effects on society.
Unfortunately, just as workers have started to win some hard fought concessions with regards to the amount of time that they spend working, we are unconsciously volunteering ourselves to potentially dangerous outcomes due to the amount of night time light pollution we expose ourselves to.
Flat screen tvs, smartphones, electronic tablets, computers and bright lighting are all having similar effects on our circadian rhythm as working night shifts or long hours due to the amount of light that we expose ourselves to. This is important as our circadian rhythm uses light to determine the appropriate responses to take for any given time of day.
Using light as a cue our circadian rhythm helps regulate our tiredness and quality of sleep. In a well aligned day:
- 07:00 – Our bodies stop producing melatonin and this helps us to wake up
- 10:00 – By this time our body has fully woken up and we are at our most alert time of the day (approximately).
- 12:00 – 14:00 We experience our mid afternoon crash
- 18:30 We experience our peak energy for the day
- 21:00 – 22:00 our body starts producing melatonin
- 02:00 Our deepest part of the sleep cycle
Exposing ourselves to the light emitted by our electronic devices is detrimental to our sleep and circadian rhythm as light can affect our body’s ability to accurately respond to what time of day it is. The result is poor sleep and daytime fatigue. If you’ve ever woken up and felt like you didn’t get enough sleep, the chances are that your circadian rhythm is out of sync.
Pervasiveness and intensity of nighttime light exposure is unprecedented in our history.Walker, W., Walton, J., DeVries, A., & Nelson, R. (2020). Circadian rhythm disruption and mental health. Translational Psychiatry, 10(1),
When exposure to light is mistimed or nearly constant, biological and behavioural rhythms can become desynchronised, leading to negative consequences for health. The relationship among mood disorders , light, and circadian rhythms have long been recognised.
Many mood disorders are either characterised by sleep and circadian rhythm disruption or precipitated by an irregular light-dark cycle.
Studies have highlighted that when our sleep cycle is out of sync with our circadian rhythm, the risk of suffering from any of the following conditions is increased greatly:
- Lower glucose metabolism
- Cardiovascular problems
- Impaired attention
- Dysphoric mood
- Difficulty learning and thinking
Getting In Sync
Thankfully there are a few things that you can do to help yourself get back on track, which require a little bit of effort and can be quite enjoyable once you embrace them.
- Get to bed between 9pm and 10pm as this will help facilitate you getting enough good quality sleep as your body naturally starts to produce melatonin which helps you sleep better.
- As your body stops producing melatonin around 7am, set this as your regular wake up time (even on weekends).
- Don’t get overly warm or cold when you go to bed.
- Don’t use any light emitting gadgets just before you go to bed. Give yourself a couple of hours to wind down and allow your body to start producing melatonin.
- Organise your work so that you do your most difficult work around 10am (if you are a morning person), or 3pm – 6:30pm (if you’re an afternoon person).
- If you are going to consume caffeine don’t do it past midday. If you suffer from a mid afternoon crash then have your last caffeine intake between 12pm and 2pm.
- Take regular breaks rather than one long big break throughout the day. Dividing your task into 25 minute blocks with a five minute break between each block for the day will help keep you focused and help keep fatigue at bay.
- Include regular exercise in your daily routine (even a 25 minute walk has been proven to positively affect the quality of peoples sleep later in the evening).
- If you find yourself struggling to stay awake during the day or suffering from brain fog, take a 10-20 minute nap. Studies have found that napping helps with your alertness and focus immediately after.
Keeping your circadian rhythm in sync is just as important to your health as regular exercise. Going to bed at regular times and not using light emitting devices close to the time that you go to bed will help keep you in sync.
You also get the benefit of an increase in your ability to focus and a feeling of increased energy just by simply following the steps outlined in this post.
Rather than celebrate the night, sleep and dreaming are now treated as annoying interruptions to our all-important lives. Living in a world that hasn’t had a good night’s rest for years has finally taken its toll. The vast majority of school children and students now arrive for their classes severely sleep deprived, adult sleep debt is at a record high, the demand for sleeping pills is rising year on year, and millions of people go about their daily business in a zombie-like state that is ruining their relationships, health and productivity. Perhaps more than at any other point in history, there is now an urgent need to change our attitudes towards the night. I believe that this will require nothing short of a revolution.Wiseman, Richard. Night School: Wake up to the power of sleep (pp. 296-297). Pan Macmillan.