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Get Your Sleep-Wake Cycle on Track: Your Circadian Rhythm Explained

When aligned correctly, a circadian rhythm promotes consistent and restorative sleep, but when it’s thrown off, it can create sleep issues, including insomnia.

Getting enough sleep is a critical component of our health and wellness. When we don’t get enough sleep, we can become irritable, stressed and unable to deal with life’s challenges as well. Experts recommend getting between seven and nine hours of restorative sleep for adults, but sometimes it’s not as simple as just climbing into bed and closing our eyes. Sometimes our sleep issues are related to something called our circadian rhythm. When this is off, it can impact your ability to sleep well. So, what is circadian rhythm? How does it impact our sleep? And how can we get it to work properly?

Circadian Rhythm Explained

According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. When people talk about circadian rhythm, it’s most often related to our sleep-wake cycle.

Tired looking woman working at desk on cell phoneOur sleep-wake cycle responds primarily to light and dark. There’s a part of our brain that gets its information from our eyes. When we’re exposed to light, it signals our brain to wake up and become alert. As night falls and it grows dark, our brain is told to produce melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep, so that we get drowsy.

When aligned correctly, a circadian rhythm promotes consistent and restorative sleep, but when it’s thrown off, it can create sleep issues, including insomnia. Your circadian rhythm can get thrown off for all kinds of reasons, including:

  • Jet lag
  • A trip to a different time zone
  • Daylight savings time
  • Shift work (working at night and sleeping during the day)
  • Too much light from electronics at night
  • Additional stress and worry
  • Anxiety
  • A lack of physical activity

When your sleep cycle is consistently disrupted, all kinds of issues can arise. Disruptions in sleep have been linked to mood disorders, obesity, some forms of cancer and other health-related issues. If you think your circadian rhythm is off, check out the tips below to reboot.

10 Tips for Getting Your Sleep Cycle on Track

  1. Be consistent. Going to bed and waking up at a consistent time, even on the weekends, helps our bodies get used to a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  2. Manage your natural light exposure. In the morning, bright natural light will signal to your body that it’s time to get up and be alert, so open the shades or step outside to drink coffee and stretch for a few minutes after waking up. In addition, it’s important to dim the lights at night so your body begins the process of winding down.
  3. Limit your screen time at night. Watching TV, scrolling through your phone and working on your laptop – all of these produce blue light which can disrupt your natural circadian rhythm.
  4. Do something relaxing at night. If you avoid blue light activities, replace them with something that’s relaxing. Try reading a book, doing some light stretching or yoga, practicing deep breathing, journaling or drinking a warm cup of caffeine-free tea. All of these can reduce stress and anxiety and prepare you for sleep.
  5. Prepare your sleep environment. Where you sleep should be cool, quiet and dark. When your room is quiet and dark, you signal to your brain that it’s time to relax. When your room is cool, it allows your body temperature to begin to fall and signals your brain that it’s time for sleep.
  6. Set yourself up for success. Try to avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening, do not take long afternoon or evening naps and give yourself enough time to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
  7. Avoid stressing about sleep. To start, give yourself enough time to wind down, fall asleep and get those seven to nine hours. If you can’t sleep after a little while, don’t stay in bed stressing about it. Get up, do something relaxing and try again after a few minutes.
  8. Hispanic woman walking with hand weightsExpose yourself to natural light throughout the day. Sit by a window, take a walk at lunch and be sure to get enough light before night comes. This helps to regulate our sleep-wake cycle.
  9. Get enough physical activity. Regular movement during the day can help tire your body and reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. However, try to schedule it in the morning or afternoon and not right before bed since it can actually wake you up.
  10. Be mindful of your eating and drinking habits. Your circadian rhythm is linked to your eating habits, so eating a late dinner can delay your sleep. Try to eat your last meal two or three hours before bed so you have enough time to digest. In addition, limit your alcohol intake before bed. A “nightcap” may impact your ability to stay asleep and get good quality sleep.

If you try all of these tips and still feel like you can’t get a good night’s sleep, talk to your health care provider. Your health care provider may be able to suggest additional ideas or screen you for a sleep disorder. To learn more about common sleep disorders affecting Veterans, check out Sleep Better: Understanding the Sleep Disorders Affecting Veterans for more information.

Additional Resources

If you’re having trouble sleeping, it may be linked to your circadian rhythm. Helping your body and mind figure out a good sleep-wake cycle can help you get the restorative sleep your body needs!

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