Have you ever been told that it is possible to function on 4 hours of sleep? I’m here to tell you – sure, you may be functioning, but that doesn’t mean it’s optimal. Sleep is essential and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You need to sleep in the same way you need to eat and breathe. In order to optimize your sleep, you also need to optimize your circadian rhythm.
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What is your circadian rhythm?
Circadian rhythms are natural and predictable cycles that occur within the body over a 24-hour period (the average length of a circadian rhythm is ~24.25 hours). These cycles are guided by our master internal clock – a group of neurons in the brain’s hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN is located atop the optic nerves of the eyes and responds directly to visual input, especially light exposure.
Your circadian rhythm is responsible for telling your body when to sleep and when to wake up, based on cues both internal and external to your body. The SCN is responsible for regulating the release of melatonin – the hormone that makes you feel sleepy – from the pineal gland when light levels are low. Circadian rhythms also impact hormone release and balance, digestion and eating, body temperature, and more.
Although these rhythms are typically predictable, that doesn’t always mean that they are working optimally. Modern culture and poor work-life balance can inhibit the optimal functioning of our circadian rhythms and throw them out of whack.
Signs you may need a circadian rhythm reset
If you’ve been experiencing sleep disturbances, you are probably now aware that your circadian rhythm could use some love.
Some signals that your circadian rhythms are out of whack include:
- Chronic fatigue, low energy, daytime sleepiness
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Poor immunity
- Impaired judgment
- Mood disorders (depression, anxiety, etc.)
- Digestive distress and dysfunction
- Body aches
- Low libido
These signs and symptoms are not specific to circadian rhythm disruption. If you work to optimize your circadian rhythm using the following lifestyle changes and are not seeing results, then something else may be at play. In this case, please speak with your healthcare practitioner to individualize your treatment (we can help!).
10 ways to optimize your circadian rhythm
1. Keep a consistent sleep schedule
Going to bed and waking up at the same times every day is ideal when it comes to optimizing your circadian rhythm. Getting into a consistent rhythm allows you to feel energized at the correct times and also feel sleepy when it is appropriate. A consistent circadian rhythm improves health, sleep, energy levels, and metabolism.
The advice for night owls is to gradually rewind the time that you go to bed by 15 minutes per night until you reach your goal bedtime. So, if you usually go to sleep at 2 am but want to get on a schedule to go to sleep at 10 pm, you will go to bed at 1:45 am on the first night of your sleep cycle repair. On the second night, you will go to bed at 1:30 am, and so on… until you reach your goal bedtime of 10 pm on the 16th night.
2. Time your caffeine intake
Think again about waking up and immediately making your regular morning cup of coffee. Waiting to consume caffeine until after your morning cortisol peak has passed will yield the most energizing effect. For those who wake up at 6 am, this would mean waiting until at least 9 am to drink coffee. In addition, drinking caffeine too early can increase cortisol levels and shift your circadian rhythm, making it harder to fall asleep later on.
Caffeine can remain in your system for up to 8 hours, depending on how fast your body can metabolize it. For a slow metabolizer, your final caffeine exposure should be no less than 8 hours before bedtime. For someone who wants to be asleep by 10 pm, you should reconsider that afternoon cup of coffee after 2 pm.
Some people can metabolize caffeine more quickly, so they may be able to get away with caffeine later in the day. In this case, a general rule would be to limit caffeine 5-6 hours before bedtime. You probably are not aware if you are a fast or slow caffeine metabolizer, so be sure to track your caffeine intake and find what works best for you.
On another note, if you aren’t a fan of coffee or large amounts of caffeine, you can try stimulating teas, adaptogens, and supplements to optimize your circadian rhythm and give you more energy during the day.
3. Create a relaxing nighttime routine
Getting in the mood to fall asleep is incredibly important. If you are feeling wired, stressed out, or anxious, the likelihood that you will be able to fall asleep easily is slim to none. Reducing stress before bedtime is essential to get your body into the desired parasympathetic, rest and digest mode.
Try adding some of these relaxation techniques to your nighttime routine:
- Read a book
- Cuddle with a pet
- Drink warm herbal tea
- Take a warm shower or bath
- Facial massage while doing nightly skincare
4. Coordinate light exposure with the rising and setting of the sun
The natural circadian rhythms have always been guided by the natural rising and falling of the sun. Today, we have bright light at our disposal any time we need it – and many people are exposed to bright artificial lighting late into the night. This is a problem because light exposure suppresses melatonin secretion.
After waking, getting 30-45 minutes of sunlight exposure is a great way to train your circadian rhythm and make you feel energized. Getting outside to bask in the sunlight (without sunglasses) should be utilized within the first hour of waking for maximal benefits.
Screens from our phones, tablets, and TVs emit blue light. Blue light exposure at nighttime has an exceptionally strong impact on melatonin levels, so it is imperative to reduce blue light exposure during the evening so you can fall asleep more easily. Another consequence of blue light exposure is that it can keep cortisol levels elevated throughout the night, making it harder to fall asleep and leading to feeling “wired but tired.”
Use blue light blocking glasses for at least a couple hours before you intend on going to bed. 8 pm is a good time to start wearing these special glasses because melatonin levels naturally begin to increase around this time.
Even with blue light blocked, the use of electronics can keep your brain wired, so be sure to turn off that new Netflix series and stop scrolling through Instagram at least 30 minutes before you wish to fall asleep.
5. Make time for movement daily
Being active improves sleep quality and can help us fall asleep more quickly. Whether it is a gym session or a brisk walk, 30 minutes of moderate exercise brings these benefits.
In the same way that late-night bright light exposure can shift circadian rhythms, late-night exercise can elicit the same effect. Be sure to avoid working out too close to bedtime, giving yourself at least a 2-hour buffer period between exercise and bedtime.
6. Step up your nutrition
Eating at regular intervals can help keep blood sugar balanced, keeping your energy high throughout the day. Many people with insomnia are following low-carb diets or undereating. Blood sugar crashes during the evening can cause your cortisol to spike too early. This can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night and also makes it more difficult to fall asleep.
Avoiding heavy meals in the evening is also essential. Instead, opt for a lighter dinner plus a nighttime snack. The snack should consist of a complex carbohydrate along with a source of protein and fat can help balance blood sugar through the night. A balanced snack before bed also increases levels of serotonin, which calms and soothes the body. We love a late-night snack of oatmeal plus almond butter to optimize your circadian rhythm.
7. Make your bedroom an oasis for sleep (and sex) ONLY
Our brains make automatic associations between locations and emotions. If you are stressed and working on your laptop from your bed every day – then your bed will ultimately become associated with stress, making it more difficult to sleep. Making your bedroom an oasis that exists solely for relaxation and pleasure is the key to avoiding this.
The most essential item we need for sleep is one of the largest pieces of furniture in our homes: the bed. Investing in a quality non-toxic mattress and pillows along with breathable linens can help you sleep more comfortably. Weighted blankets may also help by providing a comforting pressure reminiscent of a hug.
In addition, making your bedroom environment optimal for bedtime is also key to obtaining quality sleep. It may be helpful to invest in black-out curtains for your windows along with black-out stickers to place on any electronics with annoying bright lights that may inhibit sleep.
If your bedroom is not very quiet due to noisy neighbors or housemates, then use a fan or white noise machine to drown out the other noises. Lastly, the best temperature for bedtime is nice and cool at 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit. A dark, quiet, and cool environment is ideal to optimize your circadian rhythm and your sleep.
8. Pee before bed and limit evening liquid intake
If you wake up in the middle of the night to pee (nocturia), limiting your liquid intake in the evening may help you sleep through the night. If you struggle with this, try to keep the majority of your liquid intake before 4-5 pm.
If limiting your intake doesn’t make a difference, then your nocturia may be due to certain medications or could even be a sign of a health condition and should be communicated to your healthcare practitioner.
9. Consider adaptogens and supplements
Please note that this is just a general list of recommendations. Be sure to look up any potential interactions between these supplements and any other medications you may be taking. Keep in mind that sometimes supplements won’t work the same way for everyone, and if you have any negative reactions please discontinue use.
Supplements that may help you sleep:
- Reishi mushroom
- Ashwagandha (can be stimulating for some)
- Phosphorylated serine
- Lemon balm
- CBD oil
- Valerian root
10. Test (don’t guess) your cortisol levels
Cortisol also follows a daily circadian rhythm. However, chronic stress can lead to cortisol and HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis dysregulation, which can negatively impact your health and cause sleep disturbances.
The cortisol circadian rhythm looks like this:
- Levels peak when you awaken (typically 6-8 am)
- Levels decrease throughout the remainder of the day
- Cortisol remains low from 6 pm until you fall asleep
- Once asleep, cortisol slowly rises until it peaks, and you awaken again
This natural rhythm can be disrupted by lifestyle choices, illness and infection, certain medications, and more. An easy way to determine whether or not your circadian rhythms have been disrupted is to test your cortisol levels at multiple points throughout the day.
Completing an adrenal hormone test kit reveals what your cortisol circadian rhythm looks like in comparison to the ideal rhythm. Knowing what your rhythm looks like will allow your healthcare provider to construct a treatment plan that is personalized to your needs.
Timeline for daily circadian rhythm support:
Organizing all of tips from above, you can schedule your preferred level of circadian rhythm optimization into your day.
For example, for someone who wakes up at 6 am every day, their circadian support schedule during the weekend may look something like this:
- 6 am: wake up and complete morning routine
- 6:30 am: sunlight exposure for 30 minutes during morning walk
- 7 am: breakfast
- 10 am: first cup of coffee/caffeine
- 12 pm: nourishing lunch outdoors
- 2 pm: last cup of coffee/caffeine
- 2:30: exercise (bonus if it’s in the sunshine!)
- 6 pm: dinner
- 8 pm: put on blue light blocking glasses
- 8:30 pm: begin relaxing nighttime routine
- 9 pm: nighttime snack
- 9:30 pm: turn off all lights and electronics
- 10 pm: bedtime
Keep in mind that not everyone has the exact same circadian rhythm. Some people may fare better with an earlier wake time, whereas others may feel best with a later bedtime. If you are a night shift worker, you can use the same strategies listed above but switch the times listed to suit your altered schedule.
The moral of the story is: do what feels best for your body and what best suits your schedule.
Also – it is not necessary to do every single one of these things to optimize your circadian rhythm. Start with a few small changes and you may see major results.