It's no secret that many Americans struggle in the sleep department. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 35 percent of U.S. adults sleep fewer than seven hours per night — the minimum duration of sleep that most healthy adults need to maintain optimal health.
Mounting stress and anxiety, increased screen time and poor sleep habits are just a few of the many things that can potentially rob us of a good night’s sleep.
Another thing you can add to that list? A misaligned circadian rhythm.
Circadian rhythms, the name given to the physiological and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle, affect many body processes, including your sleep-wake cycle. When these rhythms are desynchronized, you may experience insomnia, daytime sleepiness, poor performance at school or work and other issues.
The good news? You can “reset” your circadian rhythm to optimize your sleep and overall health. Read on to learn more about circadian rhythms, how they work and how to fix your circadian rhythm to get the high-quality sleep you deserve.
What Is Circadian Rhythm?
As mentioned above, circadian rhythms are the behavioral changes tied to an internal clock, which follows a near-24-hour cycle. These biological rhythms are present in most living organisms, including animals, plants and microbes.
In humans, circadian rhythms help regulate body temperature, eating and digestion, hormonal activity and other essential body functions. Circadian rhythms are regulated by the master clock in the brain, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This structure, which consists of about 20,000 neuron cells, is in charge of coordinating all biology clocks in the body.
The SCN relies heavily on sunlight and other circadian time signals, known as zeitgebers, to send time information to other parts of the body and keep circadian rhythms aligned. For instance, light is a powerful zeitgeber. When light enters our eyes, the SCN signals the pineal gland in the brain to suppress melatonin production — the hormone that makes us feel sleepy. For this reason, circadian rhythms are closely tied to the day and night cycle of the Earth.
Causes of Circadian Rhythm Disruption
There are many things that can cause our circadian rhythms and the Earth’s natural light and dark cycle to be out of sync. These include:
- Working irregular hours or changing shifts a lot
- Not keeping consistent sleep or wake times
- Poor sleep hygiene (i.e., drinking caffeine or eating a heavy meal too close to bedtime)
- Jet lag
- Blindness or lack of light exposure for prolonged periods of time
- Long stays in the hospital where the patient is continuously exposed to bright lighting
Tips for Resetting Your Circadian Rhythm
A disrupted circadian rhythm can result in more than just lost sleep. It can also lead to weight gain, mood changes and a higher risk for countless health conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Luckily, there are a few easy things you can do to reset your circadian rhythm and get your sleep patterns back on track.
1. Keep bedtimes and wake-up times consistent
If you go to bed at 9 p.m. one night and 1 p.m. the next, you’re probably not doing your circadian rhythm any favors. Research shows that people who frequently change their sleep timings may experience circadian misalignment because the circadian clock takes time to adjust to changes in our schedules. Considerable variations in sleep timing can put you at a higher risk of chronic diseases like diabetes.
Having a set wake-up time and bedtime may remind you of your middle school days, but it’s crucial for maintaining your circadian rhythm. Following consistent sleep and wake times reinforces your circadian clock and makes it easier to fall asleep and wake up in the morning.
2. Engage in relaxing activities before bed
Going to bed at the same time every night sounds simple. But what if you aren’t sleepy at your desired bedtime?
That’s where having a relaxing bedtime comes in handy. When you do the same pre-bedtime activities every night, your brain eventually associates said activities with sleep. Essentially, you’re training your brain and body to feel sleepy at a certain time.
Wondering how to shut off your brain and relax before bed? Try cozying up to one of our high-quality weighted blankets, designed with comfort and stress relief in mind. Weighted blankets use soothing pressure to stimulate the body’s relaxation response, flooding your body with sleep-inducing chemicals that prepare the body for sleep.
You can cuddle up with your weighted blanket on the couch and read a good book or spend the entire night wrapped in its comforting, cocoon-like embrace. Either way, we know you’re going to love it!
3. Time your meals right
Although research is currently scarce, some scientists believe that food intake is a potential zeitgeber. When our eating patterns are altered, strong feedback is sent to the body’s biological clocks, potentially shifting the timing of other rhythms.
To reinforce your natural circadian rhythms, try eating at consistent times every day. If your schedule varies from day to day, keep healthy snacks on hand so your body knows to expect food at the same time every day. This will restore the homeostatic nature of your biological clocks and may help with your erratic sleep patterns.
4. Get daily exercise
Exercise is another possible circadian time cue. Research shows that exercising earlier in the day delays melatonin production, making the individual feel more alert throughout the day and shifting their bedtime earlier. Conversely, exercising later in the day (between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.) appears to shift bedtimes later.
Regardless of when you manage to squeeze in a workout, it’s important to be consistent. Try to work out around the same time each day and consider exercising outdoors in the morning to get bright light exposure.
5. Wake up with morning light
Try to get bright morning light exposure within an hour or two of waking up. Light is considered the strongest zeitgeber of the circadian clock and helps synchronize your circadian rhythms with the external environment.
Open the blinds upon waking up in the morning and consider going for a short walk. Bring your sunglasses with you, but don’t wear them for the first 15 minutes of your walk. You want to allow some light to enter the retinas of your eyes.
During the winter, natural sunlight can be hard to come by. Consider talking with your doctor about light therapy, which can be done at home and may help alleviate insomnia symptoms associated with circadian rhythm disorders and jet lag.
6. Avoid light exposure after dark
Similarly, you should limit your exposure to light in the evening. Artificial light at night directly impacts the body’s circadian clock, suppressing melatonin secretion and making it harder to fall asleep at regular bedtimes.
According to the CDC, our internal timekeepers are most sensitive to light from about two hours before usual bedtime and throughout the night until about one hour after our usual wake-up time in the morning. To help synchronize your circadian rhythms, dim the lights at least two hours before bedtime and make your sleeping environment pitch-black. You can block light with a high-quality sleep mask or install blackout curtains in your bedroom.
7. Keep it cool
Body temperature is another biological function under the control of the suprachiasmatic nucleus. Our body temperature naturally decreases at night to prepare us for sleep and increases in the morning to promote wakefulness. For this reason, many people find it easier to sleep when their thermostat is set to a cooler temperature.
Don’t have AC? Here are a few more tips to keep your bedroom comfortably cool.
- Get a fan. If you can’t afford to buy a brand-new AC unit, a portable fan will go a long way in keeping you nice and cool at night. As a bonus, many fans double as white noise machines, providing a gentle hum that lulls you to sleep.
- Upgrade your bedding. Swap out your heat-trapping microfiber sheets for ones made from breathable linen and percale. You can also try our innovative cooling weighted blanket, designed specifically for breathability and hot sleepers.
- Freeze a hot water bottle and put it in your bed. Buy a hot water bottle specifically for freezing (repeatedly freezing and warming a silicone hot water bottle can be hazardous) and pop it in the freezer for a few hours. At bedtime, wrap the frozen hot water bottle in a towel and place it near the foot of the bed to help you stay cool all night long.
8. Use melatonin and caffeine cautiously
To get on a regular sleep schedule and reset your circadian rhythms, you may need to stay awake longer or fall asleep earlier than your body wants you to. If you need help staying awake, caffeine can be an effective, short-term energy booster. Similarly, melatonin supplements can be a temporary fix for people who need help falling asleep at an earlier bedtime. Consult your doctor before taking melatonin supplements.
Circadian Rhythm FAQ
Are circadian rhythms set in stone?
The timing of circadian rhythms shifts with age. Babies gradually develop the components of circadian rhythms after they are born. Children generally have earlier bedtimes than teenagers, the latter of whom are more likely to show a delayed circadian rhythm and stay up later. Generally speaking, adults who practice healthy sleep habits have fairly consistent circadian rhythms. However, these rhythms may change once again in the golden years, with many seniors going to bed earlier.
What are some of the signs and symptoms of circadian disruption?
The most common symptoms associated with circadian disruption include difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early and an inability to fall back asleep. You may also notice changes in your mood, such as increased feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as stress in relationships and poor performance at work or school.
How long will it take to reset my circadian rhythm?
It depends on what’s causing your circadian clock to be off in the first place. For instance, if you’re flying across different time zones, the rule of thumb is that it usually takes the body one day per time zone to adjust to a new locale. However, some people may take longer than others.
Does blue light affect circadian rhythms?
Yes, blue light from electronics has a big impact on our circadian rhythms. Studies show that any amount of blue light — even a small glimpse at your smartphone during the night — signals to your brain that it’s time to be awake and alert. To get a good night’s sleep, avoid electronics in the hours leading up to bedtime and ban them from the bedroom entirely.
What are the health implications of a disrupted circadian rhythm?
A circadian rhythm that falls out of sync with the external environment can lead to frustrating sleep issues, including difficulty sleeping at night and reduced sleep overall. In the short term, this can lead to impulsivity, slower thinking, mood changes and an increased risk of accidents. In the long-term, disrupted circadian rhythms can potentially contribute to a host of physical and mental health problems, including weight gain and obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
From minimizing artificial light at night to winding down for bed with our best-selling Gravity blanket, there are many easy ways to fix your circadian rhythm and get the shut-eye you desperately crave. Start by incorporating a few of these tips into your daily routine to see if it helps improve your sleep. By taking the time to reset your natural circadian rhythm, you’ll enjoy more than just better snooze — you’ll also improve your health!