What are Circadian Rhythms?
Your “biological clock” is a real thing. Located in the hypothalamus, this “clock” is a bundle of nerves called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), sitting right above the optic nerve. The SCN regulates your circadian rhythms, which are physical, mental and behavioral changes following a 24-hour cycle.
Circadian rhythms influence:
- Sleep/wake cycles
- Hormone release
- Body temperature
- Sports performance
- Mood and focus
- Body weight
The SCN uses internal and external factors to drive the cycles of our clock. Its main queue is light from our environment (thus the location right behind the eye), but also uses metabolic proteins and circadian regulator genes.
DID YOU KNOW?
Circadian rhythms are found in all living things, including animals, plants, and many tiny microbes. The word “circadian” comes from the Latin “circa,” meaning ‘about’ and “dies,” which means ‘day’. The study of circadian rhythms is called chronobiology.
Why Healthy Circadian Rhythms Are Important in Feeling More Awake
If you sleep eight hours at night, your body cycles through about five 90-minute sleep cycles. If you wake up between rotations, you’ll feel more rested than if you interrupted your sleep mid-cycle.
- Sleep cycle = 90 minutes
- Move through 5 stages
- Non-REM sleep: Stages 1 – 4
- REM: Stage 5
Although it seems counterintuitive, it’s smarter to sleep less and complete four complete sleep cycles, rather than sleep longer, to 5 or 6 cycles, and interrupt your circadian rhythm. There are several cool sleep apps that help you determine the best time to sleep and wake depending on rhythms.
People who go to sleep early aren’t necessarily sleeping better:
According to Psychology Today, “regardless of when you fall asleep, people tend to experience more NREM sleep in the earlier hours of the night (e.g., 11p – 3a) and more REM sleep in the later hours of the night (e.g., 3a – 7 a). So those who stay up super late are getting more REM sleep overall than are the early-to-bedders.”
Healthy Hormone Levels
Because circadian rhythms control the secretion of hormones, abnormal circadian rhythms can seriously disturb your metabolism and mood.
For instance, this study saw increased insulin resistance and obesity in night shift workers. And this study found also found correlations with obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder in people experiencing abnormal CRs.
Optimal Sports Performance
The optimal time to rock your kickball tournament is early evening when your circadian rhythms are at their peak for sports performance. In fact, in a study that analyzed over 40 years of NFL scores, researchers determined NFL players have a measurable competitive edge when playing games according to their peak CR.
A cool new application for chronobiology? Cancer drugs. Live Science reports, “DNA repair systems are more active during certain cycles, doctors could potentially perfect drug administration timing to correspond with the height of DNA repair to optimize drug effectiveness.” Cool right? And get this: new drugs are also being developed that can correct circadian disturbances, with the potential capacity to treat obesity and diabetes.
How To Regulate Your Rhythms to Feel More Awake
Think your CRs might be out of whack? Try a few experiments to get back in touch with your body’s natural ebb and flow. This will help stabilize hormone release, improve your sleep cycles, and lower your stress and fatigue during the day.[Tweet “”Listening to your body” is a real thing. What is yours saying?”]
Be a Stickler About Bedtime
If you want to feel more awake, when you go to sleep is just as important as how much you sleep. Even if you can only get six or seven hours of sleep a night, make sure you’re going to sleep at the same time each evening. This will regulate sleep cycles and eventually give you more nourishing sleep in fewer hours. AutoImmune Paleo recommends, “Find a sleep/wake rhythm and stick to it.”
Set a time that you can realistically go to bed at, and a wake time that affords you enough sleep (8-9 hours). Try not to deviate from this more than 1-2 hours, including on the weekends.
-Mickey Trescott of AutoImmune Paleo
Avoid the Screens
The blue glow is wreaking havoc on your CRs. Because the suprachiasmatic nucleus is so sensitive to light, it’s important not to expose your ocular nerves to the disruptive blue light of TV, smartphone, and computer screens before sleep. Dim the lights and turn off your screens 30 minutes before bed.
Blue light from a 10:00 a.m. sky, blue light from your computer screen at midnight – it makes no difference to our circadian rhythms. Exposed to blue light, we limit the production of melatonin, and we stay alert and awake; in the absence of blue light, melatonin production ramps up, and we get sleepy.
-Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple
Optimize Cortisol and Melatonin Production
Cortisol release naturally spikes in the morning. It’s actually a stress hormone related to fight-or-flight, but in smaller doses it helps you feel alert upon waking. Melatonin is the “sleepy” hormone. Levels rise at night, in response to the setting sun. Knowing how to stimulate release of these hormones will help regulate CRs.
- Get a healthy dose of sunlight in the morning to encourage the cortisol spike.
- Use a CR sleep app to wake up between sleep cycles, instead of interrupting them.
- Before bed, dim the lights and turn off all screens to raise melatonin.
- Avoid exercising late in the evening. Exercise stimulates cortisol release and may disrupt your CRs.
- Avoid late night snacks. Eating late at night suppresses melatonin release, delaying your sleep cycles.
The hypothalamus produces a surge of melatonin come nightfall. This is why it is difficult for most people to stay up in the late hours of the night, despite their best efforts. Our bodies are basically forcing us to rest every night and it is best if we follow these signals accordingly.
-Marcela De Vivo for BrainWorld
There’s a lot to know about CRs and how to feel more awake. But with a little research about how to properly regulate your own cycles, you can get in touch with your body’s natural rhythm, unlocking the optimum times to eat, exercise, and sleep. That’s how to feel more awake all day every day. “Listening to your body” is a real thing. What is yours saying?