Have you ever wondered why you tend to wake up at the same time without an alarm clock, fall asleep about the same time, or get hungry about the same hour each day?
The answer is due to your circadian rhythm or biological clock found deep in the brain’s hypothalamus. Our amazing clocks are highly intertwined with physiological and behavioral processes. They routinely manage our 24-hour sleep/wake cycle with brain wave activity, hormone production, and cell regeneration.
But our internal clocks don’t adjust well to new routines.
Biological clocks have a profound effect on when we go to sleep, eat and wake, but also on mental and physical health.
The inner workings of our clocks are high-tech machines. One good example is the daily night-time routine. As night falls the clock is in high operational mode as it begins to slow the body for sleep, lowering body temperature, and releasing the hormone melatonin that makes us feel sleepy.
The clock is ‘programmed’ to react to light and darkness and the daily departure of the sun – essential for our bodies to function throughout a busy day.
Creatures of habit
Our internal clocks keep us on track. Without the intricate balance, we’d have jet lag more often than not. Sluggishness, insomnia, lost appetite, and an awful feeling of being “out of it,” are natural consequences of jet lag, a frequent discomfort of travelers. When you travel across time zones and it’s 10 pm back home, your internal clock will have you wanting to go to bed no matter what the local time is, even if it’s noon locally.
Even though our clocks do not adapt well to interruptions in daily routines, did you know our circadian rhythm can be reset, making good sleep possible?
There are many situations when our clocks may be out of sync with daily life. If you go to bed much later than usual, take a different job that requires you to work at night, or act as a personal caregiver to a friend which results in interrupted patterns of sleep, you’ll probably have problems adjusting your circadian rhythm.
The Latin phrase, “about one day” or circadian best describes the human sleep cycle. Disrupting this cycle can be harmful down the road. Poor quality sleep can affect your immune system. Many sleep studies have discovered that your rest is directly linked to your well-being and daily health.
People who have chronic sleep problems have a weaker defense system against pathogens that cause illness, such as the common cold.
To make matters worse, it is known that poor sleep can lead to overeating. While it is not exactly understood, the body uses rest to ‘recharge’ the body. Hormones such as leptin, which control appetite, may be affected by poor quality sleep.
A recent study at the University of Chicago found a correlation between disrupted sleep cycles and increased appetite, especially cravings for rich foods.
Clock reset tips
What can you do if you are one of millions who work late at night or sometimes disrupt your circadian rhythm?
Good news! We can trick our clocks if need be to maintain a 24-hour cycle while still getting the rest we need, even if the sun is shining.
Track lifestyle patterns:
• Decrease caffeine and alcohol intake before bedtime.
• Work on reducing stress. We all have stress, but it is the single major factor to poor sleep and long-term health problems.
• Find structured ways to relax. Yoga is a good example.
• Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and drink plenty of water.
• Exercise regularly.
• When are you exercising? If you’re exercising too close to bedtime, you might be confusing your internal clock with this nightly activity.
• What is the room like where you sleep? If you need to sleep in the daytime, it is very important to shut out light to trigger light/dark cycles. Adjust your room’s environment if your room is too hot or loud. Studies have shown that very dark (pitch black), cool rooms are the most ‘sleepable.’ If you live near traffic, invest in ear plugs.
• Upgrade your mattress for a more comfortable, good night’s sleep.
Mark Underwood is a neuroscience researcher, president and co-founder of Quincy Bioscience, a biotech company located in Madison, Wisconsin focused on the discovery, development, and commercialization of novel technologies to support cognitive function and other age-related health challenges such as memory. He has been taped as an expert in the field of neuroscience for The Wall Street Journal Morning Radio, CBS and CNN Radio among others. Mark is also a contributor to the “Brain Health Guide” which highlights the research at Quincy Bioscience and offers practical tips to help keep healthy brain function in aging. More information can be found at www.quincybioscience.com.