June 3, 2021
The cycle of Sleep
by Mona Jauhar RDN, LD
Most of today’s generic sleep solutions, and our modern lives, defy the basic facts of circadian biology. It is the timing of sleep that is absolutely key to getting high-quality, restorative sleep. When there are fluctuations in light and dark, due to sleeping at wrong times, exposure to bright lights at night, traveling across time zones, there is going to be chaos and confusion in the body. Evidence suggests that circadian disruption from over-lighting the night could be related to sleep disorders, obesity and depression as well.
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Many of us have heard the term “circadian rhythm” but don’t quite know what it means. This is a natural, internal process that regulates your sleep-wake cycles. Sleep involves quite a bit more than simply closing your eyes, turning off your brain, and opening your eyes again in the morning. There’s an entire internal “ecosystem” at work within your body that is closely connected with your environment to help produce the hormones and neurotransmitters needed to either help you fall and stay asleep at night or help you wake and stay motivated during the day.
While melatonin is the hormone that helps us sleep, cortisol is our “get up and go” hormone. It’s clear that we want our cortisol highest in the morning and throughout the daytime to give us fuel, motivation, and focus, and we want our melatonin highest at night as we sleep to help us feel sleepy, fall asleep, and stay asleep. Melatonin has been found to have receptors throughout the body and also acts as a potent antioxidant. This means that melatonin decides more than just whether you are sleepy or not, it can improve other areas of your health beyond just sleep. Cortisol, on the other hand, is made in the adrenal glands and is deeply involved in your sleep-wake cycle. Too much or too little of both can adversely affect circadian rhythm and sleep at night and hence productivity during the day.
The most important factor that helps regulate your circadian rhythm is light. When and for how long you’re exposed to light plays a significant role in the production of either melatonin or cortisol. Since light exposure boosts cortisol and inhibits melatonin, getting exposed to light first thing in the morning and throughout the early day is possibly the most important thing you can do to help regulate your circadian rhythm. Similarly, limiting sources of light at night can greatly benefit your sleep. Unfortunately, our body doesn’t recognize the difference between artificial blue light of gadgets or LED light bulbs and sunlight, so even after sunset, it interprets light signals, suppressing melatonin, and synthesizing cortisol, which isn’t what you want when you are winding down.
What’s your chronotype?
Your chronotype is why some people are “night owls” and others are “early birds. Chronotype is essentially the science of how your environment, routine, and schedule affect your circadian rhythm.
Circadian health is not just about focusing on sleeping well and on time, it is about several other activities we do through the day that affect our health, right from our meal timings, to workout timings, amount and timing of caffeine, snacking habits and more. You should establish when your energy and motivation is the highest and when it’s the lowest. This helps identify your chronotype and you must support it by following a eating, exercising and sleeping routine daily.
- Spend time outdoors when it’s light outside to boost your wakefulness
- Use a red-light app on your phone that gradually blocks the blue-light
- Eat your last meal not later than 7 pm everyday
- Take an Epsom or magnesium salt bath after 8 pm.
- Power down your screens well before bedtime and try engaging in something analog, such as reading a book or meditating