If you’re looking for ways to improve your sleep and your energy, aligning with your circadian rhythm will serve you well. Syncing up with your body’s 24 hour clock will help you sleep better and wake up feeling rested so you have the energy you need for a productive day.
Before we talk about how you can align with your circadian rhythm, let’s quickly talk about what it is. Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal 24-hour clock that syncs with the light and dark cycles of your environment. Your sleep and wake cycles are probably one of the best examples of a circadian rhythm. Generally you sleep when it’s dark outside and are awake when the sun is up and it’s light outside.
But your sleep-wake cycles are just one example. Your circadian rhythm influences much more than just sleep and wakefulness. Many neurotransmitters and hormones, such as melatonin and cortisol, are released in a circadian rhythm. Body temperature fluctuates in a circadian pattern. Eating habits, digestion, and autonomic nervous system activity, which controls automatic body functions like breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, all follow a circadian rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm is essentially the natural processes (including physical, mental, and behavioral changes) that your body goes through in a 24-hour cycle.
So, what regulates circadian rhythm? There are many things that influence your circadian rhythm, including circadian genes, but today we’re going to talk about two significant regulators you have control of which are light and food.
The primary stimulus regulating your circadian rhythm is light. So in the morning when sunlight hits your eyes, a signal passes through the optic nerve to an area in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN is considered the master clock, or the circadian pacemaker, that influences the timing of the physical, mental, and behavioral processes we just referred to. So, when the signal hits the SCN that the sun is up, it triggers a hormone cascade that halts production of melatonin, your sleep hormone, and increases production of a hormone called cortisol that triggers a feeling of wakefulness.
On the flip side, when the sun goes down and it gets dark outside, the lack of light sends a signal to the SCN, which triggers an increase in melatonin production to get the body ready for sleep.
While the SCN is considered the central, or primary, clock, there are secondary clocks throughout the body in organs like the heart, liver, intestines, adrenal gland, and others. These secondary clocks synchronize with the SCN and they’re influenced by other factors like meal timing and temperature.
Let’s talk about food. The timing of your meals, meaning when you eat during the day, helps regulate your circadian rhythm. Ideally, you eat during the day when it’s light outside, and you fast (or stop eating) when it’s dark outside during the night. The regular timing of when you eat helps your circadian system maintain healthy metabolic activity, including regulating blood sugar levels. But when you eat outside of these typical patterns, such as eating at night, that causes a disruption in your circadian rhythm.
Now that you know what your circadian rhythm is, and two powerful ways to regulate it, let’s talk about how to align with your body’s rhythms to improve your sleep and increase your energy. Sleep is by far the most important health-promoting activity you can engage in, so learning ways to optimize this vital activity should be a high priority for all of us. Thankfully, there are ways you can shift or tweak your lifestyle to work in concert with your circadian rhythm which improves your sleep, and will give you an energy boost too.
The first thing you can do is get sunlight exposure in the morning. Sunlight on the eyeballs when you wake up will put you in sync with your circadian rhythm. You don’t need to look directly at the sun, but position yourself so that you’re facing the sun and that way the sunlight will still hit your eyes and send that signal to your body’s master clock in your brain. It’s a pretty simple thing to do. Just stepping outside for a minimum of 15 minutes without wearing sunglasses can have dramatic effects. It improves your sleep, boosts your mood, increases your energy, and has many other health benefits.
On the flip side, at night, avoiding artificial light from technology and devices is important. Your devices emit blue light, which your brain perceives as daylight. So when that blue light hits your eyeballs it tells your brain that it’s daytime, which prevents the brain from releasing melatonin at the appropriate time. Melatonin is an important hormone that regulates the timing of sleep, so if your levels aren’t high enough when you go to sleep it can result in disrupted sleep quantity and quality.
You can avoid evening artificial light exposure by switching to warm amber colored, dim lights in your home in the evening and putting away all technology at least an hour before bed, or another option is to use blue light blocking glasses. These are amber colored glasses that block out blue wavelengths of light which prevent the melatonin suppression that blue light causes. These are widely available, you can get them right on amazon. These are the highly fashionable ones I use – they even have adjustable earpieces to fit all shapes and sizes. They also have wraparound lenses with side shields to block peripheral blue light.
So, I was wearing them in the evening recently when I was hanging out with my family and my nephew laughed and called me ‘Safety Steve’. 😂 So you know, in addition to blocking out blue light and protecting your melatonin levels, you can provide your family with a little entertainment.
If you’re looking for something that actually is a little more fashionable, TrueDark and Swanwick both have nice options for blue light blocking glasses that look good while they filter out blue light.
The next thing you can do to align with your circadian rhythm is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – even on the weekends. You’ve heard the saying, consistency is key? Well, it’s definitely an adage that fits in this conversation. Your circadian rhythm loves routine, so sticking to a schedule is a great way to optimize your sleep and energy.
Just make sure the times that you choose for your bedtime and wake time, allows for enough quantity of sleep in between. For example, let’s say you have to wake up at 6am on the weekdays to do your morning routine and get started with work. Make sure your bedtime is around 10pm to allow for about 7 to 8 hours of sleep to happen. Most people take 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep, which you can learn more about in my video on sleep pressure, so that timing of 10pm to 6am will allow for close to 8 hours of sleep.
When you eat can also help you align with your circadian rhythm, and here again, consistency is key. Maintaining consistent meal timing can help you align with your circadian clock and support a more stable rhythm that improves sleep.
The other aspect of meal timing that’s really important for aligning with your body’s natural rhythms is to avoid eating late in the evening, too close to bedtime. Your body needs adequate time, about 3 hours, to digest your food before you go to sleep so that when you are sleeping your body can focus on the important tasks of healing and repair, detoxification, maintenance on the immune system and brain, emotional regulation, improving the gut microbiome, and more. Eating before bed disrupts sleep and instead of focusing time, energy and attention on these important body processes I just mentioned, your body is having to divert energy to digesting the food you just ate.
One small caveat to this that I want to point out, is when people have issues with blood sugar regulation and are waking in the night due to their blood sugar levels dropping. Sometimes an evening snack that’s high in protein and fiber can keep blood sugar levels more stable through the night, which improves sleep and energy. But a small snack like this is much different than an entire meal or the typical late-night snacks that tend to be high in sugar and unhealthy fats, so a small healthy snack like this typically won’t be a huge issue in regards to disrupting your circadian rhythm.
To sum this up, your circadian rhythm is highly regulated by light exposure and also influenced by meal timing. Ways you can align with your circadian rhythm to improve sleep and energy include getting sunlight exposure in the morning, avoiding artificial light exposure at night, maintaining a consistent sleep-wake schedule, maintaining consistent meal timing, and avoiding late night meals.
High stress levels and chronic stress, as well as circadian rhythm disorders are factors that can impact your ability to sleep well.
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