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Shedding Light on Circadian Rhythm


Article by Angela Schaack

Photography by Angela Schaack

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On November 5th most Americans will be turning their clocks back one hour to return to standard time.  It’s the reminder that fall has arrived and daylight will continue to shorten.  It can also be the start of issues related to upsetting your circadian rhythm.  

Circadian rhythm is your body’s natural way of keeping a 24-hour internal clock which has an essential role in maintaining a healthy sleep-wake schedule.  It‘s connected to the light and darkness of the day and night to signal your body to release hormones and adjust body temperature.  When it's dark it signals the release of melatonin and lowers body temperature in preparation for sleep.  And, light causes the release of cortisol and raises body temperature to increase alertness to be ready to tackle the tasks of the day.

In today’s hectic living situations, it's easy to get off track with your circadian rhythm.  There are a  number of things that can throw your rhythm out of sync - changing shift work schedules, traveling across time-zones, working late at night or late screen time, eating or drinking late at night, and stress.  Also, age is a factor.  Just think back to your teenage years when you could stay up late and sleep until noon the next day.  As we get older the natural hormone melatonin decreases, so sleep disturbances tend to be more common.    

A disruption in circadian rhythm contributes to such issues as sleep disorders, depression, and trouble concentrating and being productive.  Here are some signs to be aware of: 

  • Trouble falling asleep most nights
  • Awaken several times throughout the night
  • Wake up in the middle of the night and cannot get back to sleep
  • Hard to wake up in the morning at a regular time
  • Feel lethargic or depressed

If you experience symptoms of circadian dysregulation, there are some steps you can take to reset your internal clock.  

  • Adhere to a regular sleep and wake time routine each day.
  • Spend time outdoors in natural light to boost your alertness.
  • Get the recommended daily exercise of 20 minutes or more.
  • Sleep in an environment that promotes rest with low or no lighting, cool room  temperature between 62-67 degrees, and a supportive comfortable mattress.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and heavy meals late in the evening.
  • Turn off screens one to two hours before bedtime and try something relaxing such as read a book, play soothing music, or meditate.
  • If you need a nap, make sure it is early afternoon and no more than 20 minutes.

You can also try some natural remedies that are known to help with relaxation and promote sleep.  As with any supplement, check possible contraindications, especially if you're taking medications or may be pregnant or breastfeeding.

  • Try a Melatonin supplement to aid with sleep.
  • Take a Magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) bath in the evening.
  • Sip on a warm cup of herbal tea such as chamomile or passion flower.

Life will occasionally disrupt this important protective mechanism.  Taking a few of these steps to reset your internal clock may resolve the issue.  If the symptoms persist, it may be time to check in with your health care provider for additional recommendations.  There is a condition related to changes in seasons called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that often results in feelings of depression and sleep disturbances.  Left untreated, SAD can become a serious condition.  If you’re exhibiting these symptoms, it's important to be evaluated by a physician, therapist, or healthcare provider for possible treatment option.

Self-awareness and taking a few steps to adjust your routines will help you manage the changes in your biological clock so you can stay on track with your health and wellness.  Rest well!

By Angela Schaack, LCSW



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