What is circadian rhythm, and why should we care?

Most living beings in the world, including humans, plants, animals, and microorganisms, have a biological clock that regulates the cycle of their circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms consist of physical, mental, and behavioral changes that occur during a 24-hour cycle. One of the most important circadian rhythms for people’s health is the sleep-wake cycle, which is regulated by light and dark. Understanding what a circadian rhythm is, the symptoms and factors of circadian disruption, and how you can balance it can be beneficial to your health and well-being.

What is your circadian rhythm?

Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that runs in the background to conduct critical bodily functions. Your circadian rhythm regulates your sleep-wake cycle and other physiological activities such as metabolism and the production of hormones. Circadian rhythms adapt to the daily rotations of the 24-hour cycle of light and dark. The word circadian stems from the Latin words circa and diem, meaning around one day. Most people have a circadian rhythm that is nearly, but not exactly, 24h. The rhythm synchronizes to the 24-hour daily cycle with the help of environmental factors, such as temperature, electronic distractions, exercise, and light, often being considered the most important ones.

A synchronized Circadian Rhythm is a vital piece of the puzzle that helps your body’s internal mechanisms function properly.

Why is it important to have a synchronized circadian rhythm?

A synchronized Circadian Rhythm is a vital piece of the puzzle that helps your body’s internal mechanisms function properly. It affects your sleep patterns, as well as other aspects of your body’s functioning, such as hormones, body temperature, and eating habits. On the other hand, a disrupted circadian rhythm can throw all the above aspects out of sync leading to problems with your health, including diabetes, obesity, and depression.

People usually talk about sleep when discussing circadian rhythm, probably because sleep is considered one of the most important factors of our health. Sleep cycles are directly linked to our circadian rhythm, mainly regulated by the amount of light we receive during the day. Daylight is considered essential to our health because it regulates our circadian rhythm, which affects our sleep quality, energy and alertness, mood, cognitive performance, and other biological functions. 

A disturbed circadian rhythm can cause serious problems, including:

  • – Difficulty falling asleep, 
  • – Daytime sleepiness or sleepiness during shift work, 
  • – Feeling tired and exhausted, 
  • – Difficulty concentrating, 
  • – Decreased alertness,
  • – Lack of control over emotions and mood, 
  • – A weakened immune system and,
  • – An increased risk of infections and cancer.

What are the factors that can disrupt our circadian rhythm?

The disruption of our circadian rhythm can happen over different periods and occasions during our life. Some of the most common factors which may impact our circadian rhythm are lack of daylight exposure, jetlag, and frequent changes in work shifts. 

  • Lack of daylight exposure affects the production of hormones, including melatonin, a hormone that stimulates sleep and then continues to provide signals that help us sleep through the night. 
  • Jet lag can be another factor, especially for people who often cross multiple time zones in a short period. It can take time for a person to adapt to the day-night cycle of their new location, which can cause difficulties falling asleep and leave you feeling exhausted during the day. 
  • Changes in shift work can also cause a disrupted circadian rhythm. Working night shifts means that you will most likely sleep in the early hours of the day, resulting in less daylight during the day.

Benefits of a good light environment include increased alertness, better sleep, and higher cognitive performance. 

Tips that can help you sustain a natural circadian rhythm

  • Implement new routines: Maintaining regular sleep-wake times including, weekends and vacations can help your body sustain a balanced circadian rhythm
  • Practice regular physical activities: Scheduling your workouts during the day, including riding a bike or walking instead of driving, will allow you to increase your daylight exposure, which can help you maintain a natural circadian rhythm, affect your sleep quality, and make it easier to fall asleep.
  • Implement daylight solutions indoors: Using daylight solutions in indoor environments, such as BioCentric Lighting™, can help you sustain a natural circadian rhythm as well. Benefits of a good light environment include increased alertness, better sleep, and higher cognitive performance. 
  • Avoid late and long naps (exception: shift workers): Taking late and long naps during the day can push your bedtime further as well as cause difficulties in falling asleep, which can disrupt your sleep schedule.

Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, especially before bed: Caffeine can influence the initiation of sleep and affect sleep time, efficiency, and satisfaction. Nicotine is also another factor that can interrupt sleep, which links smoking to different sleeping issues. Consuming substantial amounts of alcohol before going to bed can delay your sleep onset, which means you take longer time to fall asleep.

Want to learn more? Visit our resources page to access Whitepapers on Alertness, Cognition and Sleep.

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