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August 3, 2020 | Written by Brad Russell

Rest and Recharge: The Complete Guide to Circadian Health

Happy woman sleepingDuring these challenging times, getting a good night’s sleep has become increasingly difficult. Experts report that in the past decade along, at least one in four adults in the Western world have experienced significant sleep problems.

Given the unique challenges at the very start of the current decade, the number of adults with sleep issues has gone up even higher. According to a joint study by Stanford University School of Medicine and the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, nearly 35 percent of adults now experience acute sleep problems. Researchers believe that this widespread occurrence of sleep problems may be the result of the body’s natural fight-or-flight response to stress and significant changes to quality of life.

Experts believe that an important way to address these problems and get a good night’s sleep is to prioritize circadian health. A detailed understanding of circadian health can help individuals create a plan to rest and recharge for the following day.


What is Circadian Health?

Circadian health refers to the wellness of your body’s circadian rhythm regulation. Circadian rhythm is the internal, biological process that manages your body’s sleep-wake cycle. The driving force behind circadian rhythm is the internal body clock. Often synchronized with solar time, this circadian clock sends signals to the brain when the body is ready sleep in order to rest, recharge, and repair.

According to scientists, we should not underestimate the importance of circadian health and wellness. Researchers note that it plays a significant role in the health and well-being of all molecular organisms, including all animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria. In fact, the Nobel Foundation awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology to a team of geneticists who identified the mechanisms of circadian rhythm in fruit flies, believing that this research will eventually lead to advances in human sleep health and longevity.


What are the Risks of Poor Circadian Health?

Poor circadian health can impact all aspects of your quality of life. According to a study at University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology (SLEEPCTR), sleeplessness can lead to inability to focus, chronic irritability, and poor workplace performance. In addition, researchers found that insomnia lasting more than two weeks can not only worsen depression, but also lessen the body’s response to treatment.

Studies have also found that sleep deprivation can have a metabolic effect on the body’s ability to lose weight. According to a study by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, getting fewer than six hours of sleep (during every 24-hour period) can cause the body to release more of the stress hormone cortisol.

Heightened cortisol levels cause the body to store more fat while sourcing energy from stored muscle. Furthermore, the hormone can prompt the body to consume more calories through food. While this worked well from an evolutionary standpoint (consuming a lot of calories as “fuel” to fight against external threats), this trigger can lead to overeating and obesity in the modern context.


How Can I Improve My Circadian Health?

The repercussions of poor circadian health can be severe. Fortunately, there are ways to help mitigate the problem.


Embrace Your Natural Diurnality

Woman drinking herb teaHumans are diurnal creatures wired to be more active during the daytime. Accordingly, research studies have found that the earth’s natural light-dark cycle can have a significant impact on sleep.

For example, the body’s sleep-wake cycle often synchronizes with the external light-dark cycle, causing hormones like melatonin to remain suppressed during daylight hours but secrete through the pineal gland during night hours. If you find that your sleep is off, try using circadian rhythm-supporting lamps or biodynamic lighting within your home. These devices sync the level of indoor lighting with the time of day to encourage better sleep.

Another way to embrace your diurnality is to practice circadian rhythm-supporting behaviors. Research has found that implementing natural herbal tea (such as chamomile or lavender) to improve sleep quantity and quality.

Structurally, chamomile contains apigenin, a chemical compound shown to prompt sleepiness once it attaches to GABA receptors in the human brain. Try to incorporate a bedtime tea in your evening ritual, or alternative with a sunset supplement to signify to your body that it is time to regroup and repair.


Use Technology to Your Advantage

It is a given that those suffering from sleep deprivation should put away the cell phones and devices once it is time to wind down and go to sleep. If you find yourself attached to your device, however, take advantage of sleep monitoring apps that help you stay accountable for getting enough rest every night.

Sleep-tracking apps like Timeshifter provide information on timed light exposure, help for workers with shifting schedules, and even circadian-based for activities like eating and reading. Apps like the SleepScore tool can provide insight on how much rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep you achieve every night. Other technology such as a light box or light glasses may also help keep your body’s clock on track.


Maintain a Consistent Bed and Wake Time – But Do Not Force It

According to research at the University of Michigan’s Sleep and Circadian Research Lab, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule for at least seven days in a row can have a significant impact on resetting your body’s clock.

Make an effort to go to bed at the same time every night for at least week. If you cannot fall asleep within 15-30 minutes, however, do not force it. Instead, try relaxing activities (such as a crossword puzzle or drinking chamomile tea) to ease your body into restful state.


Seek the Right Type of Treatment Techniques

Young couple smilingAlthough you may be tempted to try a very short “power nap” instead of a good night’s sleep, researched published in the National Library of Medicine does not improve long-term circadian rhythm.

Instead, you may want to implement a structured program for rest known as cognitive behavior therapy. Also known as CBT-I, cognitive behavior therapy is an umbrella term for comprehensive treatment programs like stimulus control therapy and good nighttime hygiene.

To create a custom plan for yourself, you can try finding a physician-certified sleep center through the American Academy of Sleep Medicine or use the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine’s online directory to find a good behavioral sleep counselor.


The Bottom Line on Circadian Health

During uncertain times, maintaining good circadian health can feel like a significant challenge. By understanding the importance of circadian rhythms and creating a structured plan, however, you can lessen your likelihood sleep deprivation and give your body the well-deserved chance it needs to rest and repair.