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Reset Your Circadian Rhythm to Get Your Sleep Back on Track

Feeling sluggish all the time? You may need to reset your circadian rhythm so you can meet your sleep need and have the energy to do the things you want to do.
19 MINS

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. 

An Ancient Clock in the Modern World 

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. 

Does Your Circadian Rhythm Run Like Clockwork?

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. 

What Causes Circadian Misalignment?

reset circadian rhythm: woman using her mobile phone in the dark

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:

  • Ill-timed light exposure: Light has by far the strongest impact on your circadian rhythm. To keep it running like clockwork, you should expose yourself to light soon after waking and avoid light as much as possible at night. Exposing yourself to light (especially bright light and the blue light that emanates from electronic devices) in the 90 minutes before bedtime disrupts your body’s normal production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, which can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep. 
  • Jet lag: Both travel jet lag (from rapidly crossing multiple time zones) and social jet lag (when sleep and wake times fluctuate between weekdays and weekends) can cause daytime sleepiness and/or nighttime wakefulness because they throw your circadian rhythm off track.
  • Shift work: Working night shifts — staying awake when it’s dark and sleeping during daylight hours — is the main cause of circadian disruption for shift workers.
  • Sleep-disrupting substances: Because alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine are all known sleep disruptors, consuming them too close to bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Circadian disruption and increased sleep debt often follow. 
  • Irregular sleep schedules: Consistency is paramount for proper circadian functioning, especially when it comes to sleep patterns. If you don’t go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day — because of stress, child rearing, health problems, bedtime procrastination, etc. — you put yourself at risk for circadian misalignment and all of its health and energy repercussions. Napping too late in the day can also disrupt your circadian system.  

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. 

Understanding What Makes Your Master Clock Tick

illustration of the human brain with clocks in it

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.  

Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN)

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

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.

Chronotype

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

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

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.

How to Maintain or Shift into Circadian Alignment

reset circadian rhythm: couple jogging early in the morning

To maintain circadian alignment and healthy sleep habits, follow these sleep hygiene guidelines:

  • Stick to a regular wake time and bedtime: Your circadian rhythm thrives on consistency.
  • Expose yourself to light (preferably sunlight) soon after waking: It will stop melatonin production, signaling to your body that the day has begun. 
  • Exercise regularly: Physical activity during the day can make it easier to get the sleep you need at night. 
  • Set cut-off times for consuming alcohol and caffeine: To help you avoid ill-timed consumption of these known sleep disruptors, the RISE app can remind you of these cutoff times.
  • Avoid or limit light exposure after dark: Dimming lights and avoiding blue light (or wearing blue-light blocking glasses) in the 90 minutes before bedtime supports your body’s natural melatonin production.
  • Keep a sleep-friendly bedroom: The ideal sleeping environment is cool, dark, and quiet. Use ear plugs, an eye mask, and blackout curtains or blinds.

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.)

  • Follow all of the sleep hygiene habits listed above: Although these habits are important for all of us, anyone looking to reset their circadian rhythm would do well to commit to practicing them with extra vigilance.
  • Shift your bedtime and wake time gradually: When shifting to a new bedtime and/or wake time, try moving toward your goal time in 15-minute increments. The body can adapt to gradual changes more easily than sudden shifts in your sleep routine.
  • Look into bright light therapy: Used to manage circadian rhythm disorders, bright light therapy gradually shifts sleeping patterns back into normal range. A sleep specialist might use a high-intensity lamp, but exposing your eyes to bright sunlight for a prescribed amount of time (usually 15-90 minutes) first thing in the morning is a good DIY option.
  • Fully embrace the darkness of night: Being extra vigilant about avoiding light after sunset can help reset your circadian rhythm. In addition to dimming or switching off as many lights as possible and wearing blue-light blocking glasses at night, using red or amber light bulbs can help you function and get things done at night without disrupting your body’s natural melatonin production.
  • Make time to wind down at the end of the day: It’s much easier to reset your circadian clock if you give yourself time to relax and detach from the stress of the day. Whether you read a book, take a warm bath, or meditate — adding a wind down period to your sleep routine can help you ease into sleep more quickly. With the RISE app, you can customize your evening wind-down period with your preferred relaxation techniques. In the app’s Energy tab, click “Evening Routine” to add it to your energy schedule.
  • Try a melatonin supplement (as a last resort): Timing your light exposure to support your body’s natural melatonin production is far better than taking a supplement. But in certain circumstances — if you’re a shift worker struggling to get the sleep you need or a weary traveler trying to adjust to and function in a new time zone — taking a melatonin supplement may help you shift your sleep schedule.

Reset Your Circadian Rhythm With RISE 

RiseApp Melatonin Window in mobile view
Each night, the RISE app gives you an ideal window of time for a bedtime that keeps you in sync with 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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About Rise
Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

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