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CIRCADIAN RYTHM: What is it?
- Regulated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus in the brain, the circadian rhythm is the 24-hour cyclic reset and fluctuation in the body’s functions - from hormones to microbiome to metabolism.
- The SCN is the ‘master clock’, controlling thousands of genes’ regulation, and is primarily controlled by light/dark exposure. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; when we didn’t have artificial lighting and modern technology, the way our bodies received signals for what functions should be switched ‘on’ and ‘off’ at what times, coordinated with each other in sync (like an orchestra!) was controlled by the sun’s rising and setting.
- SCN exposure to light directs the pineal gland to suppress the release of melatonin. So in the evenings, when light exposure is decreased, the pineal glad is directed to release melatonin.
- Some key functions that are tightly controlled by circadian rhythm are fluctuations in sex hormones, growth hormone, glucose/insulin, cortisol, melatonin, other neurotransmitters, body temperature, enzymatic function. There’s even emerging evidence that your gut microbiome operates on a circadian rhythm!
- There are many other peripheral oscillator sensors that feed back to the SCN and influence the body’s circadian rhythm.
What are the Primary Regulators of Circadian Rhythm?
The most influential factors (in the sleep science world, these are referred to as Zeitgebers, or time-givers) are:
- Light / dark exposure (especially sunlight and blue light)
- Food / meal timing
- Exercise timing
- Social interactions
- Sleep regulation
So… What Happens When Circadian Rhythm Goes Wrong?
Screwing with nature's built in biology never ends well, and we are all vulnerable and at risk - no one is exempt from abiding from our evolutionary mechanisms. However, there are certain populations that are at a higher risk for circadian rhythm misalignment:
* Shift workers and health workers
* Emergency responders (police, firefighters)
* Hospital workers/doctors
* Medical students (especially doing residency or internships)
* Teenagers who deprive themselves of sleep during the week and then ‘binge sleep’
* University students who behave similarly to teenagers
Disease Risk Shoots Up
Increased risk for diabetes and pre-diabetes:
* High glucose levels / poor insulin response / dis-regulation of blood sugar control comes hand in hand with poor circadian rhythm.
Decreased sleep quality and quantity are also high risk factors for developing Alzheimers or Early Onset Cognitive Decline, due to the brain not being able to properly “clean up” the junk every evening with a full quality and quantity night's sleep.
Higher risk for heart attack, cardiovascular disease and associated complications
* Due to higher levels of inflammation from dis-regulated immune system function and also higher likelihood of dyslipidymia (poor cholesterol profile and blood lipid panel)
Higher risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Weight Gain Headed Your Way
Dis-regulation of hunger hormones can lead to out of whack hunger and fullness cues, leading to cravings and overeating.
However, the overarching feature here is the direct influence of sleep on weight; sleep quality decrease and sleep duration decrease (exacerbated by trouble falling asleep from discordance in cortisol/melatonin signaling) have been shown to directly pave the way to unfavorable weight gain.
On top of this, higher stress levels or an out of whack stress response - characterized by the common complaint of ’tired in the morning and during the day, but "wired" at night’ - means that your cortisol is spiking at an incorrect time (not in the morning, when it should), causing dysfunctional rhythm and inability to properly cope with life stressors. This includes irregular moods or a lessened ability to tolerate emotional and social/work stressors.
Adding up these factors all paint a picture of poor metabolic health profiles and hence unwanted weight gain. And not only do you have a deranged metabolism working against you, but also an increase in stress and emotional eating, decrease in willpower and self control, and a decrease in ability to make good nutrition decisions.
Digestion Out of Whack
Poor digestive function and digestive issues are all too common side effects seen with poor circadian rhythm adherence; this is intricately tied to the increase in stress levels and inflammation in the body.
The gut microbiome, also having a circadian component, is affected when your own circadian rhythm is out of sync. Your gut bugs aren't happy when you mess with their bedtime routines!
Stunted muscle growth and reduced performance in workouts will also result when you mess with your inner clock. This is because growth hormones and testosterone, both important for building muscle and healthy growth in general (amongst many other aspects), are secreted in a pulsatile fashion on a circadian basis - and are tied intricately with sleep quality and quantity.
In general, imbalances in the endocrine system can be seen often in both men and women.
In women this could be missing, heavy or irregular periods, struggles with excess weight, low libido; in men low testosterone, trouble with weight (putting it on or keeping it off) and low libido are symptoms.
How Can You Do a Reset on Your Circadian Rhythm?
The obvious one...PRIORITIZE your SLEEP!
Go to bed and wake up at consistent times!! This is the #1 tip here… (take plus or minus an hour… ok. Sure, weekends will be different. But weekdays up at 5 and weekends sleeping til 9 will not do your body or brain any favors, in the short or long term).
Aim to get to bed between 21:00-24:00 and get up between 5:00-8:00. In general, the most hours before midnight you can log, the better off you’ll be.
It’s been repeated over and over but it’s worth reiterating; 8 hours of sleep is ideal for most people and even though you “feel great” after 6 hours of sleep, nature doesn’t do shortcuts or cheats. Whether you can feel it now, there will be a rebound effect at some point for depriving your body and brain of sleep - sooner or later.
Early Morning Light Exposure
Get outside early in the day and expose yourself to daylight (even if it's cloudy, there’s still a significant amount fo light that your eyes detect).
Early morning movement outdoors is even better!
Cortisol spikes in the morning; take advantage of it by using it to power through a training session or workout!
Move your body every single day! Best, at the same time of day consistently. This consistency helps the body immensely in establishing routine.
Avoid exercising hard within 3 hours of bed (light cardio is ok, even helpful) but try to, most days of the week, exercise hard for 30-60 minutes during the earlier part of the day.
Dial in Your Nutrition and Meal Timing
Food timing and type of food before bed play an underrated role in sleep.
Try to eat the same time of day consistently, not just dinner but breakfast and lunch too. Like exercise, this consistency helps the body immensely in establishing routine.
Avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed.
Avoid simple carbs at dinner or before bed, and also steer clear of large quantities of fat (which takes a long time to digest)
Foods to include to help with secretion of melatonin or increase sleep quality: yogurt, cream (dairy), oats, sweet potatoes, spinach , nuts and seeds, eggs and poultry.
Hack Your Temperature
In the evenings, your body temperature should cool down gradually and then throughout the early hours of the morning (4-7am) rise again. You can tune into this rhythm and help with sleep quality and decreasing time to get to sleep by helping cool your core temperature leading up to bedtime.
Make your room as cool as possible. 66F is ideal for sleep; if you’re willing to shell out some money, there are manufacturers of pads for your bed that circulate cold water under you while you sleep to enhance sleep quality.
A hot shower before bed (and if you can, a jump into a cold body of water!) helps the body direct blood flow to the extremities, cooling the core temperature of the body, and is an excellent, easy strategy. If you have access to a sauna, this is also a great option.
Ditch the Evening Screen Habit
Evenings: limit screen exposure and indoor lighting 2-3 hours prior to bed. If you’re really enthusiastic, install f.lux on your laptop and order some blue-light blocking glasses online.
Blue light received by the eyes prevents the release of melatonin so if you insist on watching screens before bed, at least mitigate the damage and try to minimise the amount of blue light you’re receiving.
Light some candles, read a book or hang out with friends or family as the evening is winding down rather than sticking your face into a mindless Netflix film
Slow Down and Breathe
Address your stress!
Breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, nature music, binaural beats - there’s unlimited free resources out there for all of these, on youtube, spotify, app store… have your pick!
Often the cause of sleep onset insomnia is poor stress management techniques or simply taking on too much in your life. Addressing the psychological component of falling asleep is key.
Your Bedroom Should be a Stress-Free Oasis
Establish a wind down routine.
This can and should include elements discussed above; turning off screens, stopping looking at texts or work-related emails, breathing, mindfulness, warm shower, stretching… whatever works for you to calm down your body and mind and set you up for a successful night’s sleep!