Circadian Rhythm: What is It and Why You Should Know About It

Sleep is a critical function necessary for all living things to operate properly including, of course, humans. Unfortunately, modern living can interrupt our sleep, disturbing critical functions in the body and that can lead to physical and mental health problems. If you are struggling with sleep, rebooting your circadian rhythm can help put your body back in order.

How Circadian Rhythm Affect Our Bodies

What is circadian rhythm? It is an internal body mechanism that manages the timing of many important physical processes. As humans, we most commonly notice it as the timer that sets our waking and sleeping patterns.

Circadian rhythm affects other areas of health as well. It informs your body when to eat, digest, and release hormones like melatonin and cortisol, and it affects your body’s temperature and metabolism. These processes can speed up or slow down depending on your level of activity.

This rhythm is managed by a “master clock” in the hypothalamus region of the brain, an area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). According to Dr. Jonathan Schwartz of the INTEGRIS Sleep Disorders Center of Oklahoma, “the clock maintains the rhythm, so we have ebbs and flows throughout the day, such as being sleepy during part of the day but awake and active for the other part.”

Disruptions in Circadian Rhythm

For healthy individuals, these rhythms should function properly. However, our high-tech and high-stress world can disrupt how well your inner clock is keeping time, leading to problems like insomnia or lethargy. Let’s take a closer at what may cause these problems and how to address them.

Blue Light: Technology That Can Disrupt Your Sleep

The light that comes from your computer screen, smartphone, or tablet is predominantly blue. Research shows that blue light may suppress the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that is released when it’s time to sleep. This disruption in circadian rhythm can leave you feeling wide-awake at night.

The eyes are an important part of your sleep process as well and may be impacted by blue light. The iris is the colored part of your eye that surrounds the pupil. These parts act just like a camera aperture, opening and closing to let in the right amount of light needed to see. 

The cornea on the front of your eye bends and refracts light. Inside your eye, the retina turns this light into electrical impulses that are sent through a nerve network to your brain, which interprets it as what you see. If blue light disrupts this process, your sleep will suffer.

Stress and Sleep Deprivation

In 2019, researchers in Germany discovered that lab mice exposed to stress had their circadian rhythms thrown off, depending on the time of day. The study demonstrated that the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, is regulated by the body’s internal clock mechanism. Researchers found that this disruption was linked to metabolic disorders, such as obesity.

These findings impact workers in high-stress jobs and people that work irregular hours, such as scientists or nurses, especially during a pandemic. For example, healthcare providers have been hit particularly hard by working 24-hour or longer shifts to care for patients suffering from COVID-19. These frontline practitioners are struggling with sleep deprivation at unprecedented levels.

Even before the pandemic, most healthcare professionals worked rotating shift schedules, which often leads to disrupted sleep and insomnia. Frontline healthcare workers may be overwhelmed with patients suffering from this deadly and mysterious disease. That challenge can lead to stress, anxiety, and mental health issues. 

Additionally, those who are pursuing a doctorate of nursing or medicine may have had programs switched to remote or put on hold. Some students must face the choice between completing their programs or answering the call to work in a COVID-19 care unit, further adding to their anxiety and sleep difficulties. 

The Impact of Sleep

What exactly, though, is the impact of disrupted sleep for essential workers as well as the rest of us? Staying awake for 24 hours or more can affect you in much the same way as alcohol intoxication. Whether you are a healthcare worker in a medical crisis or a scientist performing research during sleep hours, your movements may be impaired placing your work and safety at risk. You may not even notice this impairment but it can lead to mistakes and greater harm.

As mentioned, a disrupted internal clock increases your risk of metabolic disease. It can also lead to mental health disorders that impact mood such as depression. To learn more about sleep and circadian rhythms, particularly how they impact you at different stages of life, read The Science of Sleep by Wallace Mendelson.

How To Reset Your Circadian Rhythms

How can you reset your circadian rhythm to reduce the risk of mental and physical health issues? Start by limiting exposure to blue light at night by getting off your devices an hour or more before bedtime. However, if you must work late, use a blue light blocker app to reduce the strain on your eyes.

Another simple way to help reboot your circadian rhythm is to spend time in the sun. Science shows that exposure to morning sunshine may improve the quality of your sleep so try to get outdoors early in the day.

Since light informs your brain that it’s time to wake up, be sure to completely darken your room when you sleep. Invest in room-darkening blinds if you must sleep during daylight hours.

Circadian rhythms are a critical part of the body that helps it function properly. Pay attention to your internal clock to avoid sleep issues that can harm your physical and mental health.

Indiana Lee
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