2 ways to reset your circadian rhythm
Each one of us has a different body clock or circadian rhythm that’s based on genetics. While the 10pm-6am sleep schedule is most common, it’s true that there are night owls and early birds who are wired with different circadian rhythms. However, we have the ability to slightly influence our circadian rhythm with good sleep hygiene and our behaviors. A night owl will likely never feel their best waking up early. But for someone who’s used to going to bed at 1am, they can use light therapy and habits to move their bedtime to a more appropriate time of 11pm for example.
Your circadian rhythm, or body clock, depends primarily on light to keep it on track. In one study by researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, he put himself and a colleague in a dark cave so they didn’t know when it was day or night. They found that their body clocks were approximately, but not exactly, 24 hours. Most of the participants’ body clocks were slightly longer than 24 hours, and a few people had shorter clocks. This experiment shows that your body uses light to keep you on the exact 24-hour clock that humans have decided to use to tell time.
Many of my clients have a messed up circadian rhythm which means their body clock is off. They feel sleepy during the day or in the early afternoon. But then when it’s time to go to bed, they’re wide awake even though they’re exhausted. This happens for 2 reasons:
When you don’t get enough sunlight during the day and you’re exposed to artificial blue lights at night, your body clock gets confused. Where I live in Jackson Hole, not getting enough sunlight during the winter also plays a role.
Blue refers to the type of wavelength from light and is measured in lux. Blue light is what naturally comes from the sun at up to 100,000 lux on a sunny day.
Light bulbs and screens also emit blue light, at 50 to 1,000 lux.The invention of the light bulb only 150 years ago has completely changed our lifestyles and has given us the ability to stay up all hours of the night if we wish.
How does blue light affect sleep? As little as 180 lux can alter our body clock. That means that being inside with artificial lights on at night is telling your body that it’s daytime instead of nighttime. Blue light suppresses melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep.
The flip side is that if you’re indoors all day, you aren’t getting enough natural sunlight to set your body clock every day. You need sunlight or a light therapy lamp to regulate your circadian rhythm.
“We’re not getting enough bright light exposure during the day, and then in the evening, we’re getting too much artificial light exposure,” sleep researcher Dan Pardi said. “Both of those have the consequence of causing our rhythms to get out of sync.”
How to set your body clock
You can maintain your body clock by being exposed to 30 to 60 minutes of sunshine at noon. That noon exposure acts as an anchor light and can set 80% of your body clock. If you can’t be outside in bright sunlight, you can use a light therapy lamp with 10,000 lux instead. These lamps are also called “happy lamps” (because they help with Seasonal Affective Disorder). They’re inexpensive and many options are available on Amazon.
You also want to avoid blue light in the evening, 2 hours before bed.
I recommend a power down half hour where you stay off screens at least 30 minutes before bed. Instead of watching TV, you can read, meditate, stretch, take a bath, journal, connect with your spouse or friends.
Dim the lights in your house the hour or two before bed. Or you can put amber light bulbs in your lamps in your home and use only those lights before bed. They emit a warm light instead of bright blue. Smart light bulbs that you can set to be bright during the day and then warmer at night are another option.
If you have bright lights or you still want to watch screens, you can wear glasses that block blue light. You want to wear those until you are in bed and have turned off the light for the night. My favorite stylish brand of glasses is Swannies.
You also want your bedroom to be completely dark at night for quality sleep. Use blackout curtains or wear an eye mask so you’re sleeping in the dark.
While light is important for good sleep, it’s not the only factor. The reason your circadian rhythm is off isn’t just because of blue light at night. Millions of people watch TV at night and don’t get sunlight during the day and sleep just fine. And many of my clients already know about blue light, so they aren’t on screens at night or they wear blue light-blocking glasses. And they still can’t sleep.
This happened to me, too. When I couldn’t sleep, I followed all the “sleep rules.” I stopped watching TV at night. I used a happy light, and while it felt great to sit in front of the light in the morning, it didn’t help my sleep at all which was extremely frustrating.
If your circadian rhythm is off and you can’t fall asleep at bedtime, your body is releasing cortisol at night when it shouldn’t be.
Cortisol is the hormone that wakes up in the morning and keeps us alert throughout the day. It should spike to its highest point within 2 hours of waking up and then gradually go down throughout the day.
Cortisol is also one of your stress hormones and it’s anti-inflammatory, so if you have stress or inflammation at night your body will release cortisol then. Cortisol gives you energy, makes your mind race, and increases your heartbeat, blood pressure and body temperature, making it impossible to sleep. Many of my clients have high cortisol at bedtime or the middle of the night, which totally explains why they aren't sleeping.
The most common reasons for high cortisol at night are:
Other imbalances in the body also affect sleep. But if you feel wired but tired at night, it’s likely because of cortisol.
So the key to resetting your circadian rhythm is to find out why cortisol is high at night and address it. You can take a supplement to lower cortisol but I caution against this, especially long-term. Your body is releasing cortisol to fight stress and inflammation, so if you suppress it you’re interfering with your body’s ability to deal with stress and inflammation. And even if your cortisol is high at night, it could be low overall. So forcing your body to lower cortisol can make you feel even worse and have less energy.
My team and I at the Complete Sleep Solution can help you reset your circadian rhythm so you can sleep normally. We use functional lab testing to find out what’s causing stress and inflammation in your body. Functional lab testing shows how the different systems in your body are working so we know what to fix, kind of like how a car mechanic plugs your engine into the diagnostic machine to see what’s wrong. Then we give you a plan to reduce that stress and inflammation so you can fall asleep easily and stay asleep all night.
Book a free consultation to find out how the program works so you can start sleeping better soon!