Better Sleep By Fixing Your Circadian Rhythm Naturally
It’s a fact that our lives are organized around clocks. We look at a clock after we wake up or depend on the clock’s alarm to wake us up. We glance at the clock throughout the day and before we go to bed at night.
Just as we rely on factory-made clocks, the human body relies on its own internal clock called “circadian rhythm.” The 24-hour clock in our brain regulates when we wake up, eat, and sleep by responding to light changes in our environment. For the most part, circadian rhythm helps us to maintain a stable sleep-wake schedule. However, it can be thrown off by different changes, such as jet lag, work schedules, time zones, and stress.
The good news is that we can reset our circadian rhythm just like we can reset a factory-made clock. The circadian rhythm is not set for life but can change with age and life situations, according to Leslie Dobson, a California-based clinical psychologist certified in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. For example, babies do not develop a circadian rhythm until they are two or three months old, which is why newborns can sleep or wake up any time of the day or night. The circadian rhythm of teenagers and young adults in their early 20s peaks late in the night, which is why they can stay up until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. without getting too sleepy. On the other hand, older adults (between 60 to 65) begin to see their circadian rhythm shift, and start to get sleepy earlier in the evening.
Your circadian rhythm is “flexible to some extent, allowing for adjustments based on your lifestyle or needs,” Dr. Paul Daidone, a double board-certified physician at True Self Recovery in Arkansas, told Real Simple.
How To Reset Your Circadian Rhythm
While your circadian rhythm shifts naturally as you age, health experts say you can reset your internal clock when it is thrown off. According to Dr. Daidone, the best way to alter your circadian rhythm is to start making gradual, but effective, changes to your sleep. Keep in mind that you cannot change the genetic components of your circadian rhythm and sleep needs, but Dr. Daidone said you can adjust your sleep-wake times with a little patience and practice.
“Abruptly changing your sleep-wake pattern can result in a period of poor sleep quality and decreased cognitive performance,” Dr. Daidone, who also practices internal medicine and addictionology, explained.
For starters, Dr. Daidone recommends gradually shifting your sleep times by 30 minutes to an hour earlier or later each day until you reach your desired schedule. The following are techniques other health professionals say you can do to reset your circadian rhythm:
1. Get natural light exposure or use bright light therapy devices
Exposure to bright light can reset your sleep-wake cycle to improve your sleep and help you feel alert during the day. If you can’t get natural light exposure, you may benefit from light therapy devices, such as light boxes, desk lamps, and sunrise simulators. Before using one of these devices, the Sleep Foundation recommends speaking with a credentialed sleep medicine physician to determine the exposure level and times of the day that are best suited to your particular circadian rhythm’s timing.
2. Adjust your meal times
Our circadian rhythm controls when we are hungry and how we process food. According to some studies, eating earlier or delaying meals changes how your circadian rhythm controls these processes, making you feel alert and exhausted at different times than those you are used to.
Adding regular exercise can improve sleep quality and duration. However, timing is crucial for everything pertaining to the circadian rhythm, so avoid exercising one to two hours before bedtime.
4. Develop a good sleep routine and sleep hygiene
Dobson provides tips for developing a good sleep routine and sleep hygiene:
- Avoid consuming caffeine after lunch. Caffeine is a stimulant that can stay in your system for hours.
- Take care of sleep disturbances, such as a snoring partner or fidgeting pet.
- Only use your bed for the three “S’s”, Sleep, sex, and if you’re sick.
5. Avoid using smartphones and tablets, and watching TV in bed
The blue light emitted from these devices can send your body mixed signals, throw off your circadian rhythm, and disrupt sleep.
In addition, wearing a sleep eye mask and ear plugs can help create the ideal sleep environment: Comfortable, dark, and quiet.
What May—or May Not— Help Reset Your Circadian Rhythm
Two controversial suggestions to reset your circadian rhythm that sleep experts are divided over are consuming caffeine and taking melatonin supplements.
Caffeine is a short-term energy booster that works well to help you shake off grogginess in the morning, or jet lag or keep you alert when working a late night shift. But “while it can give you a temporary boost in alertness, it doesn’t replace the restorative effects of sleep,” Dr. Daidone said. “It can also disrupt your circadian rhythm if consumed too late in the day.”
Some people who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep use melatonin supplements. Melatonin is a natural hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, but it is also available as synthetic (man-made) supplements.
“Melatonin supplements are often marketed as sleep aids, but melatonin is more of a sleep regulator than a sleep initiator,” Dr. Daidone explained. “It can help signal to your body that it’s time to wind down, but it’s not a guarantee for immediate sleep.”
Melatonin supplements, which come in tablet or gummy form, are available with a prescription or sold over the counter. There is no official recommended melatonin dosage for adults because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not approve dietary supplements or their labeling. However, a safe melatonin dosage is generally determined based on age, body weight, and personal sensitivity, according to the Sleep Foundation.
If you have tried to reset your circadian rhythm but are still having trouble falling or staying asleep, consulting a healthcare provider can help identify and address any issues related to your sleep patterns.