Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to sleep after the clocks change, or why you feel so sluggish on dark winter days? Or why after working an overnight shift or travelling overseas you experienced the difficulty of “resetting” to a new time? Perhaps you’ve noticed the natural ebb and flow of your appetite during the day — or even noticed that you feel colder at certain times. All of these processes and more are controlled by what are known as circadian rhythms — the natural cycles of our bodies that occur about every 24 hours. When our body isn’t in sync with the outside world, things can get out of whack.
Is there a clock inside of us?
Kristen Knutson, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine in the Department of Neurology at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on the associations between sleep, circadian rhythms and chronic diseases. Dr. Knutson explains that each cell in our bodies has a tiny molecular clock that dictates when to do various activities, like release hormones and process energy. These tiny clocks are controlled by one central clock, sometimes known as the conductor, which is located in the hypothalamus area of the brain. When everything is working well, all of the clocks are synchronized to the same time, and the conductor directs them all, much like a maestro leading an orchestra. Together the system tells us when to eat, sleep, and wake up. The body is constantly synchronizing these inner clocks to the outside world, and light exposure is the most important cue. Dr. Knutson highlights that “the timing of our clocks can be changed by exposure to light.”
Modern life can throw off our clocks
There are a lot of challenges to maintaining a normal circadian rhythm these days, especially during a pandemic. Our bodies didn’t evolve to live with technology, and our brains can’t always tell the difference between daylight and artificial light. Using a screen at night can confuse our brains by giving us the “daytime” signal when it’s actually time for bed. Conversely, not getting enough light during the day can make us feel sluggish and sleepy. With school and work now often occurring from home, the routines of our lives may be very different. Shift workers may particularly have difficulty getting on track, especially if their work hours change frequently. How can we help our bodies feel on schedule, especially now that the nights are long and many of us are working from home? As Dr. Knutson emphasizes, now it’s more important than ever to keep your rhythms on track.
Dr. Knutson’s Tips to Keep Your Body Clock Consistent
Try and maintain the same sleep/wake times each day — even on the weekends. Your body will feel best when you wake up and head to bed on a regular schedule.
Make sure to get some light in the morning, especially if you’ve had a tough time waking up. This could mean taking a brisk walk outside or even just choosing a sunny window to sit by for your morning coffee.
Avoid bright light in the evening — especially if you have trouble falling asleep. You may want to choose a paper book at night and to make your bedroom as dark as possible. If you must use a screen at night, try turning down the brightness.
Keep your daily schedule as consistent as possible — especially if you are working from home and don’t have the structure of an office. In addition to maintaining a routine sleep schedule, make sure to eat at regular intervals throughout the day. If possible, avoid large meals at night, as they can disrupt sleep.
Exercise can help keep your body on track, and it doesn’t have to be intense. Something as simple as regular family walks can benefit everyone’s mood and health, including your four-legged family members.
Speaking of pets, have you noticed they don’t always have the same sleep patterns as humans? That’s because their circadian rhythms are different than ours. So if you find your cat pouncing on your head at 3 am…it may be time to banish the kitty from the bedroom.