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How to get your circadian rhythm back on track

Posted on February 28th, 2023

The human body has an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm operates on a twenty-four cycle and governs essential processes and functions. One of these functions is the sleep-wake cycle. 

Environmental cues called ‘zeitgebers’ point to when you should be awake and asleep. These cues are what drive your circadian rhythm. They include…

  • Light exposure (this is the most important signal)
  • Social interactions
  • Food intake 
  • Physical activity
  • Body temperature 

Once your circadian rhythm is set, it can be challenging to change. But your circadian rhythm does shift as you get older. 

For example, babies and toddlers typically sleep in several phases during the day and night. And older people tend to go to sleep earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning than younger adults. This is due to shifting circadian rhythms. 

When your circadian rhythm shifts as you age, that’s normal. But when other factors cause your circadian rhythm to shift, you may experience sleep disturbances and daytime grogginess. These factors include jet lag, late-night snacking, sleep deprivation, and irregular work schedules. 

When this happens, you need to get your circadian rhythm back on track so you can get more restful sleep. 

Shift your circadian rhythm

A group of around 20,000 neurons located at the base of your brain makes up your circadian rhythm. This group is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). 

When you’re asleep and your eyes detect light, your eyes signal the SCN to let your brain know it’s time to wake up. Then, the SCN releases hormones that make you feel awake and alert. Conversely, when it’s time to sleep, the SCN releases hormones that make you feel sleepy. 

But when your circadian rhythm is out of whack, this process doesn’t happen when it should. and you can experience sleep disturbances and daytime grogginess. 

To get your circadian rhythm back on track, follow these tips: 

Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each day. 

Even if you don’t fall asleep when you want to, set your alarm and wake up at the usual time. This will help maintain your sleep schedule and circadian rhythm. 

Try bright light therapy. 

Timed exposure to bright, artificial light can get your circadian rhythm back on track. You can use a lightbox, desk lamp, or sunrise simulator. If you’re a shift worker or someone who works late at night or early in the morning, these tools can work well. 

However, before using one of these tools, talk to your doctor about the level of light exposure you should use and the best time of day to use it. 

Switch up your meal times. 

Besides regulating your sleep-wake times, your circadian rhythm also governs when you feel hungry and digest your food. Research has shown that if you advance or delay when you eat, you can shift when your circadian rhythm signals these processes. In turn, this can shift when you feel tired and ready to sleep and alert and ready to wake up. 

Exercise regularly. 

Exercising every day benefits your overall well-being, including how well you sleep. Plus, sleeping well helps you have more strength and endurance when you exercise. 

But you have to be mindful of the timing of your workouts. If you work out too close to bedtime, your mind and body may be too stimulated to fall asleep. However, this doesn’t mean you have to work out early in the morning. Just try not to exercise within 1-2 hours of when you plan to go to bed. 

Monitor your caffeine intake. 

Caffeine is a stimulant. And if you consume it too close to bedtime, you may have trouble sleeping. In healthy adults, caffeine has a half-life of five hours. This means it takes your body roughly five hours to eliminate half the caffeine you consumed. 

So if you’re a coffee, tea, or soda drinker, have your caffeine earlier in the day and stop 5-7 hours before you go to bed. 

Talk to your doctor. 

Your doctor or another credentialed healthcare professional can help you figure out the safest, healthiest, and most effective means of shifting your circadian rhythm. 

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders

Sometimes, a person’s circadian rhythm isn’t just temporarily out of whack. Sometimes, it’s due to a circadian rhythm sleep disorder. 

Delayed or advanced sleep-wake phase disorder

Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder occurs when a person’s sleep-wake cycle is delayed more than two hours beyond a typical sleep schedule. People with this disorder struggle with early-morning obligations, such as work and school, due to a lack of sleep. 

Conversely, the sleep-wake cycle of people with advanced sleep-wake phase disorder is more than two hours earlier than a typical sleep schedule. This sleep disorder is more common among elderly adults. 

In both types of the disorder, the sleep-wake irregularities must persist for three months or more for them to be considered a disorder. 

Irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder

This disorder is commonly found in people with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and other neurodegenerative conditions. People with this disorder experience inconsistent sleep-wake patterns. They typically sleep for four hours or less and nap during the day. They have trouble sleeping at night and experience excessive daytime fatigue. 

Shift work disorder

This disorder is unique to people whose schedules require them to work late at night or early in the morning. People who perform shift work often experience sleep disturbances and daytime grogginess. They also lose 1-4 hours of sleep during every 24-hour period and may have trouble getting into work mode at the start of their shift. 

People with this condition are prone to developing ulcers and self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. Due to a lack of sleep, they are also more likely to get in accidents either at work or while they’re commuting to and from work. 

Non-24-hour sleep-wake rhythm disorder or free-running disorder 

With this disorder, a person’s internal clock doesn’t reset every twenty-four hours. This causes their normal sleep times to constantly be in flux, which can interfere with their work or school schedule. 

When their sleep cycle doesn’t work well with their social and professional schedules, people with this disorder often experience insomnia and daytime fatigue. However, they don’t experience sleep issues when their sleep cycle and work schedules align. 

Jet lag

People experience jet lag after traveling across multiple time zones. Jet lag causes temporary sleep disturbances and daytime tiredness, lasting for a few days up to two weeks. Jet lag usually passes once a person’s internal clock syncs with the local time. 

Traveling east tends to result in more severe jet lag than traveling west. And traveling both north and south doesn’t typically result in jet lag unless two or more time zones are crossed. 

To reduce the effects of jet lag, travelers should practice good sleep hygiene. This includes avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and the blue light from phones and other electronic devices too close to bedtime. 

Dr. Meghna Dassani has practiced dentistry for over two decades and is passionate about the role dentists play in whole-body health. You can learn more at her website:

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