A Short, Simple Guide To Circadian Rhythms

You’ve probably heard the term “circadian rhythm” brought up when the topic of sleep is being discussed. You’ve probably thought to yourself, “that sounds important – I really should look into it sometime.”

More often than not, life gets in the way and we find ourselves in the strange position of knowing more about our jobs, hobbies, and obscure internet trends than the way our own bodies function. 

But fear not, friends. We’ve put together a short and simple guide to understanding what a circadian rhythm is, the role it plays in your health, and how you can maintain a healthy circadian rhythm through the ups and downs of life.

Let’s dig in.

What is a Circadian Rhythm?

Your circadian rhythms are a part of your body’s internal clock that run in 24-hour cycles. There are a number of systems in your body that follow circadian rhythms, and these systems influence your physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral functions. They also impact your sleep, hormones, appetite, energy, and body temperature.

While there are a few different types of circadian rhythms in your body, the most commonly discussed is the sleep-wake cycle. According to Neuroscientist and popular podcast host Dr. Andrew Huberman, this is the most powerful rhythm we all contain. Understanding the role that this cycle plays in your health will give you the information you need to make positive changes to your lifestyle and get better sleep in the process.

Your circadian rhythms run just like any other system in your life. 

For example, your family represents a system. In order to cultivate a healthy and happy household, you can implement things like family dinners, bedtime stories for your children, and date nights with your spouse to increase the strength of the family unit. By continuing to add more positive elements to the system, you will make the system stronger and better suited to last over a long period of time.

Your circadian rhythms are no different. Your daily habits and routines all play an important role in your sleep-wake cycle. And the best part is that you don’t have to make any drastic lifestyle changes in order to optimize these rhythms.

Let’s take a look at the ways circadian rhythms impact your health. After that, we’ll finish with three areas of your life you can focus on to cultivate and maintain a healthy circadian rhythm.

How Circadian Rhythms Impact Your Health

Maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm has a number of positive effects on your health. However, disruption to your circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycle can lead to an increased risk of developing a number of health problems and serious long-term disorders:

Positive Effects

(of having a healthy circadian rhythm)

  • Easier time falling and staying asleep
  • Increased coordination, cognition, and weight control
  • Better immune function and cardiovascular activity
  • Improved digestion
  • Reduced stress

Negative Effects

(of having disruptions or irregularities to your circadian rhythms)

  • Sleep loss
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Low energy
  • Increased stress

There are also more serious health risks that can stem from having an unhealthy circadian rhythm, including:

  • Cancer
  • Obesity
  • Depression

Now that we know the impact your circadian rhythms have on your health, let’s examine three factors you can control to help maintain a healthy circadian rhythm:

How To Cultivate A Healthy Circadian Rhythm

There are a number of things you can do to improve and maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, including taking short naps (20 minutes or less) and managing caffeine and nicotine use. While there are many additional factors that impact the health of your circadian rhythm, there are three external events you can influence on a daily basis that play a vital role in connecting your body’s internal perception of time with the natural rhythm of your day:

1. Light Exposure

Morning

Get outside and expose your eyes to 2-10 minutes of sunlight within the first hour of waking. This is one of the best things you can do for your sleep, energy, mood, and metabolism. Natural light provides your brain with the signals it needs to set your natural waking system in motion.

If the sky is overcast or your schedule requires that you wake up before there is light outside, turn on as many artificial lights as you can to mimic the effect and alert your brain that it is daytime.

Note: DO NOT ever stare directly into the sun. Simply being outside will do the trick.

Afternoon

The more sunlight you can expose your eyes to during the day, the easier your body will be able to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle. If you work in an office, try getting at least one break of five minutes or more to step outside and allow your eyes to get some natural light. This can help fight fatigue and reduce post-lunch drowsiness.

Evening

Once you’ve finished work for the day and are beginning to wind down, you will now want to get as little light in your eyes as possible. Avoiding overhead lights and phone/computer screens will help tell your brain that sleep will be coming soon. This will regulate your melatonin levels and create a smoother transition into resting.

2. Exercise

As we all know, frequent exercise is great for your long-term health. But what many people do not realize is that getting daily exercise (even if it’s only for a very brief period of time) provides our bodies with much needed internal regulating effects that will keep our energy and circadian rhythms functioning correctly. 

Getting even a little bit of exercise everyday, whether it’s taking a walk during your lunch break or doing some push ups in the morning, will add a layer of consistency to your routine that your body will be able to use to further fortify your circadian rhythm. 

Try and perform your exercise at a similar time each day. This connects your physical activity to your body’s natural rhythms to create a healthier and more stable system.

3. Eating

Eating your meals at consistent times tells your body when to release digestive proteins and hormonal regulation efforts. The good news is that you don’t need to eat every meal at the same time every day, but instead simply try to be consistent in eating within the same time window (say between 11am-1pm for lunch and 6pm-8pm for dinner). This will help balance your circadian rhythm and produce the mood, energy, and overall health-boosting effects you’re looking for.

Summary

While this blog post is only an introduction to understanding circadian rhythms, having this knowledge in your back pocket will give you the information you need to make small changes to your daily habits that will pay off in very big ways. By getting some light early in the mornings and finding consistency in your daily exercise and eating routines, you’ll likely see a boost both in the quality of rest when you’re asleep and in the way your body feels when you’re awake.

For more sleep education, visit our blog here.