You’ve probably heard of your circadian rhythm, or body clock. Did you know that you can use circadian rhythms to improve your sleep at night? Building lifestyle habits that set your body clock and make your circadian rhythms more robust will help you get a good night’s rest. Let’s get into the details of how to do that.
How our body clocks work
Our circadian rhythms are those 24-hour fluctuations in physiological function. ‘Circa’ means ‘around,’ and ‘dia’ means ‘day.’ These rhythms can be found in many different body systems, including our hormones, digestion, skin and more. The central clock is deep in our brains. What’s interesting is that our inherent body clocks are somewhat longer than 24 hours. That’s why it’s easier to stay up late Friday night for a party than it is to go to bed early on Sunday to prepare for the work week. What keeps us on a regular schedule is the bright light we get each morning when we open our eyes, open the curtains and go outside.
That light keeps us in sync with the environmental day by suppressing our melatonin. Melatonin is called ‘the hormone of darkness’ and is secreted at night in the absence of bright light. Melatonin helps us feel drowsy at night. The light given off by electronics such as the television or computer screen are bright enough (and the right wavelength) to suppress our melatonin. Another consideration is that, as we age, our melatonin secretion naturally declines.
For healthy sleep, we want our circadian rhythm to be robust.
Create regular bedtime and wake times that allow the amount of sleep you need. Ideally, these vary no more than 30 minutes over the course of the week. And yes, that includes weekends! If you really need more sleep at the weekend, plan to take a nap after lunch. This will allow you more total sleep time, but won’t interfere with your body clock.
When you get up in the morning, purposefully get a dose of bright light by opening the curtains. Even better – go outside to take in the neighbourhood scene or walk the dog. Try to spend 20-30 minutes. This helps even on cloudy days.
Daily exercise improves sleep. Getting that exercise outside is even better! Studies have also shown that sleep gets you fitter, so they definitely complement each other.
Spend the hour before bed in low light, without a TV or computer. Think about the lighting people were exposed to at that time of night before electricity, and replicate it as far as you can. There are many activities you can do to wind down and be ready for sleep. Some favourites are: reading something relaxing, chit-chatting with your partner (not discussing the finances or housework!), doing some gentle yoga, stretches or those PT exercises that are hard to find time for, listening to music or an audio book, or taking a bath or hot-tub.
Having a regular schedule for meals, exercise, and other activities such as your commute, will also help you sleep well.
Read more about food that promotes sleep.
Time for change
Creating a routine that is healthy for sleep takes a little know-how. Now that you have the knowledge, take a few minutes to write out for yourself how you can implement these ideas. Maybe make a plan with your partner, friend or housemates. Then post the plan where you’ll see it every day. Stick to it for two weeks, and notice the shift in your sleep. I bet you’ll find it worth doing for the long term!