PUBLISHED 4TH AUGUST 2017
You know that post-lunch slump you get each day between 1 pm and 3 pm? That’s your circadian rhythm at work. It’s basically an internal clock ticking away in the background of your brain. Over a 24-hour period, your circadian rhythm cycles between periods of sleepiness and alertness – which is why it’s also known as your sleep/wake cycle.
Your circadian rhythm is regulated by exposure to sunlight. The morning sun triggers your brain to rouse you from sleep. Then when it gets dark in the evening your body releases melatonin: a hormone which makes you feel tired and ready for bed.
Although our circadian rhythm tracks the sun, this internal clock varies with each individual person. When your own internal clock is out of sync with your external clock (e.g. work schedule, lifestyle, social commitments), this throws out your circadian rhythm. This effect is described as ‘perpetual jetlag,’ because it’s as though you’re operating on a different timezone – you feel alert when you should be resting, and exhausted when you need to be awake.
Are you a night owl or a morning lark?
When your alarm goes off in the morning, do you:
A: Jump out of bed feeling energized and ready to take on the day?
B: Hit snooze at least 5 times and snatch as much extra sleep as possible?
If you answered A, chances are you’re a lark. You love to rise with the sun and eat breakfast within half an hour of waking up. Mornings are your most productive time of day, but by 10 pm you’re ready to hit the hay.
The Bs out there, on the other hand, identify as night owls. Your ideal lifestyle revolves around late nights and late starts. Since your energy levels peak in the evening, you often burn the midnight oil.
Whilst environmental factors and personality play a role, where your bedtime preferences fall on the lark-to-owl spectrum is largely determined by your genes. Whether you’re more of a morning or an evening person can range from mild to extreme.
Recent studies show that mutated gene is responsible for extreme night owl tendencies, known as “delayed sleep disorder.” People who test positive to the mutated gene have a circadian rhythm which is delayed by up to 2 hours, meaning they find it difficult to fall asleep before 2 am or 3 am, and generally sleep in until past 10 am. For extreme night owls, working regular office hours can be a real struggle.
So can you actually reset your circadian rhythm?
If you’re genetically wired to be a morning person you can’t become an evening person and vice versa. But if an irregular schedule or poor sleeping habits have left your body clock feeling out of whack, there are a few things you can do to reset your circadian rhythm:
1. Get outdoors
Since sunlight is a key factor in regulating your circadian rhythm, it’s important to expose yourself to the sun as soon as you wake up and to limit artificial light in the evening. This is why camping is one of the most effective ways you can do to get your circadian rhythm back on track.
2. Maintain a strict sleep schedule
It may take some time to shift your sleeping pattern, but consistency is key. Set a bedtime which allows you to get enough sleep each night and be strict about sticking to it – even on weekends!
3. Practice good sleep hygiene
Make sure your sleep environment is cool, dark and noise-free. Establish a bedtime ritual that allows you to completely wind down before going to sleep. This might include taking a bath, reading a book or doing some yoga.
Regular physical activity significantly improves your quality of sleep, which is why daily exercise is so important for establishing healthy a sleeping pattern.