Do you need to count sheep every night to fall asleep but still toss and turn? You’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep issues. Other than not feeling well, poor sleep can lead to a whole host of physical and mental health problems. One thing that plays a major role in your shut-eye is your circadian rhythm, your body’s internal clock and the natural process that helps carry out essential functions including cycles of alertness and sleepiness. It is controlled by a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. If you have trouble sleeping, your circadian rhythm might be out of whack.
“When your circadian rhythm is thrown off, your body’s systems often don’t function optimally. It can lead to a number of disturbed sleep patterns and cause sleeping problems. Individuals can struggle to fall asleep, wake up frequently during the night, or it can lead to waking up too early in the morning. When it is off you often also experience a lesser quality of sleep and can wake up still feeling tired even after you have slept,” says Soda Kuczkowski, a sleep health educator and the founder of Start with Sleep, a Buffalo-based wellness center and retail boutique that provides a variety of sleep solutions to help people get better rest.
There are a variety of circadian rhythm sleep disorders that can affect the quantity and quality of your slumber. Some, including delayed sleep phase disorder and advanced sleep phase disorder, may run in families. Others could be caused by neurological or physical conditions. Often, though, changes to your routine, like travel or a schedule that doesn’t jive with the normal sleep-wake cycle, can throw your rhythm into a tizzy.
Kuczkowski says social jet lag can be a major driver of poor sleep. “It is the discrepancy in a person’s sleep pattern between the weekday and the weekend, which can cause a person to feel jet-lagged or tired and fatigued. This often occurs when individuals do not keep a consistent sleep-wake cycle and have extreme changes in their daily schedules.”
Getting your rhythm back in synch is important because it affects so many different areas of your life and health. Kuczkowski says circadian rhythms are “linked to promoting healthy sleep, alertness, coordination, cardiovascular activity, cognition, weight control, immune function and digestion.”
How can you reset your circadian rhythm?
First, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekend. Then, get natural light as soon as you wake up. “Get 15 minutes of light every morning and again at the noon hour to kick start your body’s natural clock and to keep it in sync. Exposure to blue-enriched morning light improves both alertness and reaction speeds. When we regulate our light exposure at the proper times, it helps to release the sleep hormone melatonin,” says Kuczkowski. “Just being aware of daytime light can help to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep by 83%!”
Our diet also can help our body produce melatonin, a hormone that is connected to sleep. Increasing when our brain senses darkness and decreasing when it senses light. Foods like cherries, strawberries, kiwi, tomatoes, bell peppers, grape seeds, walnuts, olives, rice, barley are high in melatonin.
Stay hydrated. “Drinking enough improves focus and concentration but also helps to flush out excess cortisol helping to manage stress, a big factor in many sleep challenges,” says Kuczkowski.
Drinking enough water also is critical because sleep is a dehydrating event. “We lose about a liter of water through our breath when we sleep at night! When you wake up in the morning, make sure to add drinking room-temperature water to your wake-up routine,” she says.
Finally, optimize your bedroom for sleep. Experts recommend keeping the temperature between 60 and 67 degrees and humidity between 40% and 50%.
Reduce exposure to light from artificial light sources like televisions and phones. Consider using blue-blocker glasses with amber lenses. Make sure your bedroom is dark to let your body know it is time to produce melatonin and help regulate your circadian rhythm.
Try some deep breathing, which can improve your mood and reduce stress. Mindful breathing breaks both around bedtime and throughout the day “will help release tension physically and mentally clear your headspace to be more present and calmer,” says Kuczkowski.