With small habit shifts, we can reset our brain’s circadian clock operating in the background and affect our sleep cycles and energy levels.
In fact, you’ve reset your internal clock unconsciously if you’ve traveled across time zones or stayed up late a few times to watch an important sporting game or attend an event.
But that circadian clock is sensitive to other internal and external factors that can throw it off and make you feel out of sorts and sleep deprived for a longer time.
So how can we nudge our circadian rhythm or clock back on track when that happens? Let’s turn to the National Sleep Foundation for tips.
What is the Circadian Clock?
Our hypothalamus is a small part of the brain controlling circadian rhythm, the 24-hour cycle that ebbs and flows with energy and drowsiness at different times. Our greatest dip in energy comes between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., when most of us are asleep, and between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. which leads to our cravings for post-lunch naps.
Darkness signals to the hypothalamus that it’s time to release melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. But light exposure at night, including from technology, can suppress melatonin’s release and prevent you from feeling sleepy at night.
You may feel like you’ve gotten a second wind. And so to get that signaling system working again and prevent other health problems, we need a circadian clock reset.
It’s important to get enough sleep for a healthier you, 7-9 hours for adults and even more for children. And even though we think we need less sleep as we age, the National Sleep Foundation asserts that most of us need at least 7 hours a night.
I learned the hard way how to wreck my life in 5 hours or less.
What Throws Off Our Internal Clock?
Several factors can throw off our circadian rhythm. When we’re well-rested these shifts in alertness and drowsiness become less noticeable. But when we’re sleep-deprived, we want that post-lunch nap even more. And we may find ourselves more irritable, unable to concentrate, and unable to rest well at night.
Your hormones, neurotransmitters, and genes all affect your circadian rhythm, as do external influences: sunrise and sunset, and temperatures.
Our behaviors are the ones we most can control.
How Can I Reset My Circadian Clock?
So what behaviors can we change to reset that clock, or sleep/wake cycle?
Sleep experts suggest the following:
Control lighting – Dim lights in the evenings about an hour before bedtime, and avoid all screens then. Technology affects sleep by inhibiting production of melatonin and exciting our minds.
In the morning, as soon as the alarm goes off, turn on as many lights as possible or get outside into the daylight as soon as possible.
Consider Fasting – Studies at Harvard have shown that on long flights, fasting while traveling and adapting immediately to the new sleep and eating schedule may help fend off jet lag. And in our daily lives, adhering to a 12-hour or less window of eating may help reset our circadian clock. For example, eating dinner at 6 p.m., and then nothing else until at least 6 a.m.
Adhere to a sleep schedule – Going to bed and waking up at consistent times, even on weekends, benefit circadian rhythm. To make this adjustment, shift in smaller increments, 15 minutes at a time.
Pay attention to caffeine and exercise – Some times of day are better for exercise than others, if you’re focusing on resetting your internal clock. And caffeine later in the day can affect the quality of your sleep.
Visit sleep.org for more insights and tips on sleep habits from the National Sleep Foundation. And if you need help creating new habits and strategies, we can explore sleep and other areas through Integrative Health Coaching.
Hi! I’m Amy Hoogervorst, a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach. I’m glad you’re here! I invite you to subscribe to my weekly Well Check, delivered each weekend via email, for more resources and information.