Circadian Rhythm: Understanding the circadian rhythm and how to regulate it provides tremendous benefits to all areas of life. Also known as the sleep-wake cycle, this rhythm is influenced by environmental factors that you can manipulate to “reset” your rhythm. Today we explore the signs that your circadian rhythm is out of whack and natural ways to regulate it.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
What is a Circadian Rhythm?
The circadian rhythm is the internal body clock that governs a wide range of essential functions in the body. The term comes from the Latin phrase circa diem, which means around a day, and indeed the rhythm runs on approximately a 24-hour clock 1.
This 24-hour clock is like a background operating system. One of its primary functions is regulating the sleep-wake cycles, which profoundly impacts virtually every aspect of health 2. The science of circadian health is ever-evolving, but it has already been linked to some significant pillars of wellbeing, including metabolism and weight, mental health, and neurodegenerative diseases 3-5.
The body is constantly trying to regulate its sleep-wake cycles based on environmental cues. Some of the critical factors are light (if it’s light or dark outside) when you eat and are physically active 6.
Undiagnosed and untreated circadian rhythm disorders may increase your risk of certain health conditions and increase the likelihood of workplace or road accidents 6.
Signs that your Circadian Rhythm is Out of Whack
Some of the common symptoms that present when the circadian rhythm is imbalanced include: 6-7
- Consistent difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or both
- Excessive daytime sleepiness or sleepiness during shift work
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Decreased alertness and difficulty concentrating
- Impaired judgment and trouble controlling mood and emotions
- Aches and pains, including headaches
- Stomach problems
Natural Ways to Reset Your Circadian Rhythm
Luckily, resetting your circadian rhythm is not very difficult. However, it does require forming new habits, which can be more challenging for some based on lifestyle. The process itself can happen over a few days but requires living a ‘circadian-friendly lifestyle’ that continues to honor it day in and day out.
The circadian rhythm is influenced by various environmental cues, especially light 8. This rhythm is rooted in our ancestral roots before the invention of artificial light.
Before the invention of artificial light, daylight would introduce the only spectrum of blue light. This type of light is required for wakefulness and all the associated processes during the daytime. After nightfall, the absence of blue light leads to the natural decline of waking hormones like cortisol in favor of sleep hormones like melatonin 9.
With the invention of artificial (blue) light, our bodies are essentially ‘tricked into thinking it’s still daytime, long after sundown 10. Sources of blue light include the sun, digital screens (TVs, computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets), electronic devices, and fluorescent and LED lighting 10. Only one of those is a natural source of blue light, and indeed when the sun is present is the only time our body would naturally be exposed to this type of light.
By introducing light after sundown, we interfere with the sleep-wake cycle regulation. Limiting it is your best option, especially in the two hours before bed. There are also red-tinted glasses (called blue light blocking glasses) now available on the market that help mitigate the direct exposure to the eyes. Opting for red-dominant light like salt lamps, red bulbs, or salt lamps is another way to see at night, without the intense hit of blue light.
Sleep has a bi-directional relationship with circadian rhythm, meaning that poor circadian health will negatively influence sleep, and a night of poor sleep will negatively impact the circadian rhythm 11. This relationship emphasizes sleep quality as a pillar of regulating the sleep-wake cycle and must be addressed through quantity, quality, and routine.
Sleep quantity varies from person to person, but in general, adults need at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep per night 12. Sleep quality depends on how deeply you sleep during those hours. There are three distinct phases of sleep: light, REM, and deep sleep. Although some people may sleep eight hours a night, if most of them are light sleep, they will not feel rested or benefit from the regenerative processes during deeper sleep stages.
Some tips to improve the quality of sleep: 13-16
- Avoid blue light 2+ hours before bed
- Avoid vigorous exercise 2+ hours before bed
- Don’t eat large meals 2+ hours before bed
- Sleep in a cooler environment (65 degrees F or 18.3 degrees C)
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
- Keep electronics out of the bedroom
- Use sleep-promoting essential oils as a part of your bedtime routine to promote calm and relaxation.
Studies show that exercise is a great tool to regulate the circadian rhythm 17. It indirectly promotes a wide range of health markers, including hormone regulation, nocturnal blood pressure dipping, post-exercise hypotension, and overall cardiovascular health 17.
Although it may be difficult at first, studies suggest that a morning exercise habit can shift your circadian rhythm so that your body is naturally more alert in the morning and more tired in the evening 18. Implementing morning exercise as a routine could help regulate your rhythm (and even turn you into a “morning person”).
To promote circadian health, you want to avoid vigorous exercise too close to bedtime. Intense exercise releases cortisol (the awake hormone) in the body, which has an opposite relationship to melatonin (the sleep hormone) 14.
Stress management is a crucial aspect of any healthy lifestyle because chronic stress means chronically elevated cortisol, which leads to chronic inflammation 19. As we have explored, cortisol and melatonin are essentially opposing hormones. One works to keep you alert (cortisol), and the other induced sleep (melatonin).
Having high levels of stress or chronically low underlying stress levels will interfere with sleep quality, which will disturb your circadian rhythm. Stress can present in chemical, emotional, and physical forms– so being mindful that things like difficult relationships, toxins, and too much exercise will harm your body’s internal clock.
When in doubt: go camping. This tip naturally combines all of the points above because old-school camping (without all the fancy technology and gadgets) reconnects your rhythms with nature very quickly.
Have you ever noticed that you go to bed super early when you’re camping? It’s a universal phenomenon because of the combination of daytime activity, the lack of artificial light (bonfires are circadian rhythm approved!), the fresh air, and the quality sleep primes you up for a total circadian reset.
A long weekend spent in the woods will help reset your circadian rhythm, but remember that keeping a healthy regular rhythm requires constant work. Tips 1-4 should be implemented as a daily routine to continue honoring your internal body clock.
The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal clock that regulates functions like the sleep-wake cycle. This function has a profound impact on virtually every aspect of health. Regulating the circadian rhythm can be done naturally by targetting environmental inputs like light, sleep, exercise, and stress management. For a hard and fast reset, consider a weekend camping in nature! And then implement lifestyle choices to support your circadian health when returning home to maintain the benefits.
Circadian Rhythm Blend
We all have an occasional sleepless night, but chronic sleep problems can wreak havoc on your health and wellbeing. Even if this news seems grim, the good news is you can improve your sleep.
Here’s what researchers have discovered about the damaging effects of poor sleep:
- Sleep disorders increase the risk of developing an autoimmune condition by 50%.
- Sleeping less than 6 hours per night increases the risk of obesity by 55% in adults (90% in children)
- Sleeping less than 6 hours per night increases the risk of type 2 diabetes by 50%
- Routinely sleeping less than 6 hours per night doubles risk of stroke, doubles risk of myocardial infarction, increases the risk of congestive heart failure by 67%, and increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 48%.
- The amount of sleep you get upon and after a breast cancer diagnosis is a predictor of survival, and getting less than 6 hours of sleep increases the risk of death by 46%.
- People who continually sleep less than 6 hours per night are 12% more likely to die than those who got more than 6 hours of sleep per night.
Sleep issues are on the rise in the wake of the pandemic, and many people are opting for sleeping pills to get them through it.
Unfortunately, most sleeping pills come with a host of adverse side effects from headaches and nausea to drowsiness throughout the day. While most people might think that natural sleep aids aren’t strong enough to get you through the night, it’s more likely they haven’t tried the right formula. DReM Sleep Aid isn’t just another melatonin supplement. It contains a cocktail of essential nutrients, plus a proprietary blend of herbs and amino acids that banish stress and promote healthy sleep.
Pair DReM with another one of my secret remedies for incredible, deep sleep…
This revolutionary blend is unlike any essential oil you’ve tried before, with a very specific ratio of organic, wild-crafted, therapeutic essential oils that are known to support pineal gland function, promote relaxation, and induce sleep.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based upon the opinions of Dr. Daniel Pompa. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Pompa and his associates. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD for accuracy of the information provided, but Dr. Pompa encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
1 Brainard, Jason et al. “Health implications of disrupted circadian rhythms and the potential for daylight as therapy.” Anesthesiology vol. 122,5 (2015): 1170-5. doi:10.1097/ALN.0000000000000596
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