There are many reasons you might want to reset your circadian rhythm. Maybe staying up late on the weekends — or an otherwise erratic sleep schedule — is diminishing your weekday energy levels. Or perhaps shift work or jet lag has thrown your sleep schedule out of whack. Even the twice-yearly one-hour time change around daylight saving time can be enough to leave you feeling out of sorts. In fact, any ongoing sleep problems or daytime sluggishness could potentially be signs of circadian misalignment.
No matter what the cause, circadian misalignment can make you feel drained and can have serious health consequences. The good news? A circadian reset can help. But that’s only part of the equation. In order to feel good and perform at your best each day, you must also get sufficient sleep and keep your sleep debt low.
In this article, we’ll explore the inner workings of your internal clock, or circadian rhythm. We’ll also discuss the importance of good sleep hygiene — the upkeep of behaviors that influence the way you sleep — and how you can adjust your daily habits to restore your circadian alignment for better sleep and better days.
Your circadian rhythm is the internal body clock that dictates when you’re awake and when you sleep over a roughly 24-hour cycle. For thousands of years, before the advent of artificial lighting, our ancestors’ days were ruled by the rising and setting of the sun. And even after centuries of technological advancement and societal change altered our lives immeasurably, our human biology still bears the stamp of that rhythm. Following the cycle of daylight and darkness we see in nature is the best way to keep your circadian rhythm in alignment so that you get the sleep you need and can feel and perform your best each day.
The problem is, even though our bodies would function best if we went to bed shortly after sunset and woke up at sunrise, the schedules of our modern lives rarely line up with that timeline. But even if our circumstances (work, school, child rearing, etc.) make a sun-down/sun-up sleep schedule unviable, there are workaround solutions. Being mindful of your circadian rhythm, strategic about the timing of your light exposure, and consistent with your sleep schedule can help you meet both your sleep need and the energy demands of your day.
In the RISE app, we refer to your circadian rhythm as your energy schedule because it predicts not just your sleep-wake cycle, but also the natural peaks and dips in energy you experience in roughly 24-hour cycles. And although the timing will vary somewhat from person to person, the basic pattern goes something like this:
After a period of grogginess upon waking, you’ll start to feel more energetic. This is your morning peak, which is followed by a mid-day dip in energy. Within a couple of hours, your energy starts to rebound. You’ll get a second wind — your evening peak — before increasing sleep pressure ushers in a wind-down period. Next up is your Melatonin Window; it’s the ideal time to go to bed because this is when your brain produces the highest levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
In a perfect world, your sleep schedule would line up completely with your circadian rhythm, which would make it easy to get the exact amount of sleep your body needs every single night. But in the real world, life has a way of getting in the way. When your sleep schedule gets thrown off, you get less sleep and your sleep debt goes up.
Sleep debt is the running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed, as compared to the number of hours of sleep your body needed over the past 14 days. Keeping sleep debt low helps you feel good and perform at your best. High sleep debt, on the other hand, has negative effects on focus, memory, and cognitive performance. Sleep debt influences circadian rhythm and vice versa.
Over the long term, both high sleep debt and circadian misalignment can put you at increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. But in the near term, you'll be groggier when you wake up and sleepier throughout the day. You'll also experience greater stress and anxiety, and there will be a decline in your decision-making skills and attention. Basically, anything and everything you care about is going to be impacted.
So, it’s important to be aware of the kinds of things that can disrupt your circadian rhythm and impact your sleep and energy:
Determining which of these factors could be causing circadian misalignment for you is the first step in finding a way to get your body clock back on track. The second step is to practice good sleep hygiene to restore circadian alignment. We’ll talk about this more later, but first we thought you might like a little more information on the science behind those recommendations. Because understanding what makes your internal body clock tick might make it easier to do a reset when needed.
Light and darkness may be the most important influences on your circadian rhythm, but there are also other factors at play — some of them internal, some of them external. To explore this fascinating set of complex biological processes involving different parts of the brain and body, let’s start by defining — and connecting — a few key terms.
The SCN is a special group of neurons (inside the brain’s hypothalamus) attuned to the roughly 24-hour cycle of changing light caused by the Earth’s orbit around the sun.
Also known as the brain's master clock, the SCN is influenced by light and other external cues, and it regulates the body’s peripheral clocks with hormonal, neural, and nutritional signals. For example, at night, darkness cues the SCN to prompt your brain’s pineal gland to secrete melatonin to prep your body for sleep.
Peripheral clocks are secondary circadian clocks present in nearly every tissue and organ system in the body.
In near-constant communication with the SCN, peripheral clocks function in your immune system (in the spleen and lymph nodes), metabolism (in the liver, thyroid, and adrenal glands), digestion (in the liver, pancreas, and gut), and thermogenesis/body heat systems (in the heart and brown fat tissue). And even short durations of circadian misalignment can have negative impacts, such as producing pre-diabetic conditions in the body.
Your chronotype is your underlying circadian rhythm. It’s your natural inclination toward an earlier wake time and bedtime (morning chronotype) or a later wake time and bed time (evening chronotype) — or anything in between.
Whether you consider yourself an early bird or a night owl, your chronotype is determined by age and genetics — and your sleep schedule and light exposure serve as signals to the specific length of your circadian rhythm. Because their bedtimes can get progressively later and later, evening chronotypes often find themselves slipping into circadian misalignment.
Entrainment is the setting or resetting of your circadian rhythm. It’s the synchronization of an internal biological clock with nature’s light-dark cycle or other with external time cues.
Maintaining perfect circadian alignment can be difficult. And if your early bird or night owl sleep schedule becomes so extreme that it causes significant circadian misalignment, you can reset or entrain your circadian rhythm by adjusting the timing of your light exposure and other zeitgebers.
Zeitgeber (German for “time giver”) is an environmental or social cue that influences and helps synchronize biological rhythms. It provides a stimulus for setting or resetting a biological clock.
Natural daylight is the most important one, but food/meal times, temperature, and exercise are also important zeitgebers, which is why the RISE app’s recommendations pertaining to these things feature so prominently in our sleep hygiene guides. Alarm clocks and school or work schedules designed to keep us functioning on a regular schedule can be considered zeitgebers as well.
Adjusting the timing of your light exposure and other zeitgebers is a good way to reset a circadian rhythm that’s out of whack. And adopting good sleep hygiene habits is a vital part of the process.
To maintain circadian alignment and healthy sleep habits, follow these sleep hygiene guidelines:
To reset a circadian rhythm that’s already out of whack, try employing these tactics to get it back in line. (The RISE app takes the guesswork out of this process by making it easy to see and track your circadian rhythm.)
In today’s world, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the hectic pace and endless demands that often dominate our lives. You might even be too busy to notice that you could be suffering from circadian misalignment. But if you’re having trouble sleeping or feeling especially run down, it might be time for a reset.
Adopting good sleep hygiene habits — with special emphasis on the timing of your light exposure — and making incremental sleep schedule changes can help you get closer to your ideal biological bedtime and wake time.
But tuning into the specifics of your circadian rhythm isn’t exactly second nature. The RISE app is a convenient tool that simplifies and streamlines the process of maintaining or resetting your circadian rhythm. It replaces uncertainty and guesswork with automatic calculations and an easy-to-use interface. RISE uses special algorithms and your recent sleep history data to estimate your personal daily energy cycles to give you an ideal bedtime and wake time, insights about daily energy peaks and dips, and helpful reminders for maintaining good sleep hygiene.
Getting a clear picture of your circadian rhythm is a game changer. When you can see (on a screen!) the signs of circadian misalignment as soon as they begin to develop, you can move quickly to make the changes needed to reset your circadian rhythm — before you lose too much sleep over it. After all, getting the sleep you need is the key to feeling and being your best every day.
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