from the lab

Everything You Need to Know About Your Circadian Rhythm

circadian rhythm

Have you ever wondered about your body’s inner clock — how naturally we seem to get tired at night and wake up with daylight? Meet your Circadian Rhythm. Today’s brainwaves are all about this important function of our body, and how we can optimize it for a better night’s sleep.

What exactly is a Circadian Rhythm?

The Circadian Rhythm is the body’s innate timing device. It provides the timing for our sleep-wake cycles, hormone releases, our eating habits, and more.

It's not just humans that have a Circadian Rhythm. In fact, all living organisms have one – animals, plants, fungi, and cyanobacteria. Circadian Rhythms are controlled internally, but are highly impacted by environmental cues. 

How does it work?

The Circadian Rhythm’s functions are controlled within the hypothalamus, a portion of the brain. Within this part of the brain lies the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This is the component in our brains that functions like a clock, operating on a 24-hour rhythm. The SCN controls the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for making you feel tired or sleepy. Within the SCN are a group of neurons that have the neuropeptide called Neuromedin S (NMS), which are critical for the timing of the Circadian Rhythm.

It’s important to remember that our internal sense of time is genetically determined. Regardless of how much light we get during the day, or what temperature it may be, we will still follow an innate 24-hour schedule (although some individual rhythms can be a bit different!). However, it is still highly impacted by outside cues such as light and temperature.

When the SCN receives information about incoming light from the optic nerves that relay information from the eyes to the brain, it signals the brain to promote alertness. When our intake of light decreases in the evening, the SCN sends those signals to initiate body relaxation.

For most adults, energy naturally wanes during the middle of the night (between 2:00am and 4:00am), and early afternoon (between 1:00pm and 3:00pm).

How does technology impact our Circadian Rhythms?

Society’s new dependence on technology has had a disruptive impact on our natural Circadian Rhythm’s due to the blue light the emit. This light that comes from our phones, TVs, tablets, and more send signals to our bodies that it’s still time to be awake by delaying the release of melatonin in our bodies (mimicking the effects of natural light on our innate clock). While it’s tempting to watch an episode of your favorite show on Netflix after a long day, check your email before bed, or perusing Facebook to help you fall asleep, it does more harm than good to our sleep cycle.

How can we use our Circadian Rhythm to make the most of our sleep-wake cycle?

While our inner timing is mostly genetically predetermined, due to the influence external factors we can incorporate certain lifestyle changes to get a better night’s sleep and a more energized day.

1. Right after you wake up, go outside for a walk around the block.

Exposure to sunlight will help signal to your body that it’s time to start the day and you’ll feel more awake as a result.

2. Limit caffeine use after 5pm.

Step away from the coffee — switch to a non-caffeinated herbal tea to wind down instead.

3. Make your bedroom just for sleeping --  keep work at the office.

Turning your bedroom into a sanctuary for relaxation is key to making the most of downtime and a healthy sleep schedule. If you’re surrounded by reminders of deadlines and to-do lists, falling asleep will feel nearly impossible.

4. Start dimming your lights when the sun goes down.

Find a warm tone of light or take advantage of a dimming switch to help signal your body that it’s time to relax, in line with your body’s natural rhythm.

5. Limit technology use after dark and avoid it 30 mins.-1 hour before bedtime.

Notifications capturing your interest and the artificial blue light emanating from your phone and TVs are completely disruptive to a quality night of rest. Try charging your phone at night in another room and limiting your Netflix binge to shut off about an hour before bed.

How do you make the most of bedtime? Tell us!

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