Aligning your body’s clocks or circadian rhythm is an important part of overall wellness. If you’ve ever experienced jetlag, you know the feeling but it’s about more than just being tired. For a few uncomfortable days, your body feels like it’s at war with the clock—you want breakfast at midnight, a hearty meal midday, and your eyelids feel like cement long before bedtime. This unpleasant phenomenon is known as circadian disruption, and you don’t even have to step foot on an airplane to experience it.
Your brain understands the clock on the wall, but your body’s peripheral clocks (organs with their own circadian rhythms) are perplexed as a result of the flight. The pancreas thinks it’s still in California, the liver’s in England, and the kidneys are home in Connecticut. Many of us are in a chronic state of circadian disruption which occurs not only after traveling through different time zones, but anytime we get too little or poor-quality sleep.
The body runs on a master internal clock made up of a group of cells in the brain, known as the “circadian pacemaker.” It operates on 24-hour cycles of light and dark, using those external signals to tell the rest of the body’s peripheral clocks, (located in organs like the pancreas, liver, kidneys, heart, gastrointestinal (GI) tract, muscle tissue, adipose tissue, and breast tissue—each operating on their own circadian rhythm), when to do things like produce hormones like cortisol, insulin, and melatonin, when to make stomach acids and enzymes and when to digest.
When all our clocks are in sync, we naturally eat, exercise, and sleep at the optimal times for our body and we feel good overall. When our clocks are out of sync from too little sleep, poor quality sleep, or not enough natural light during the day, we experience circadian disruption. Once the smooth secretion of melatonin or cortisol gets out of whack, our body doesn’t know when to be active and when to rest. Needing to nap during the day or sleeplessness at 2 a.m. are both signs of circadian disruption. When our body is flooded with mixed messages, we crave the wrong foods at the wrong times, are awake when we should be asleep, are exhausted when we usually have energy.
Chronic circadian disruption is linked to poor concentration and memory, diminished performance, increased risk-taking behavior, problematic detoxification, mood and anxiety disorders, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer. While we might treat sleep as an indulgence, it’s essential to our overall wellness. If you find that your internal clock needs a reset, (and truthfully, most of ours do), there are some simple rules to follow to help eating, sleeping, and feeling more energized.
PRACTICING GOOD SLEEP HYGIENE
Chronic circadian disruption is linked to poor concentration and memory, diminished performance, increased risk-taking behavior, problematic detoxification, mood and anxiety disorders, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer. While we might treat sleep as an indulgence, it’s essential to our overall wellness. If you find that your internal clock needs a reset, (and truthfully, most of ours do), there are some simple rules you can follow to help you eat and sleep better, and feel more energized.
SET A SCHEDULE: If want to sleep well every night, you need to practice going to sleep and waking up at the same time every single day—yes, even on the weekends! Any deviation beyond a half-hour will cancel out your progress. Experts advise setting your alarm no later than 7 a.m. This allows your melatonin levels, (that key ingredient for sleepiness), to naturally elevate around 8 or 9 p.m., priming you for lights out at 11.
NAP LIKE A CAT: If regular sleep isn’t possible and you must take naps, limit them to 40 minutes or less. Any longer and your body prematurely burns through its reserves of adenosine (an important hormone in sleep regulation), leaving you wide awake when it’s time for bed.
SET A “LAST CALL” IN YOUR KITCHEN: Make sure you eat your last meal two to three hours before bed. Not only do our bodies have a tough time breaking down food late at night, but our willpower tends to weaken as well. Being tired or sleep-deprived only exacerbates this by causing cravings for simple carbohydrates. Our body knows that these foods turn into glucose/sugar for a quick energy boost. Reaching for cookies, ice cream or a bowl of cereal at 11 PM sets the stage for a restless night’s sleep.
SAY “NO” TO THE NIGHTCAP: Since alcohol metabolizes immediately into sugar, limit your consumption to one drink with dinner. Those glasses of wine or martinis might knock you out so you fall asleep quickly, but they prevent restorative REM sleep, leading to a restless—not—restorative night overall.
GO DARK: In this age of smartphones, tablets, laptops and e-readers, turning off the electronics before bed can seem impossible. Powering down at least one hour before bed is essential to getting a good night’s rest. Electronics emit blue light, a powerful disrupter to our circadian rhythms. Also, try turning lamps low after dinner to assist in signaling to your body that it’s time for bed.
BABY YOURSELF: If you want to sleep like a baby, you must treat yourself like one. Establishing a soothing bedtime routine—like you would for a child—is a great way to prime your body for sleep mode. Try a warm bath, a cup of herbal tea, some restorative yoga or stretching or reading a relaxing book before bed. Not only are these great ways to de-stress, but chances are you’ll drift off to dreamland much easier than you would in front of the TV.
Practicing good sleep hygiene is of the utmost importance. But so is understanding that the quality of our sleep is vital to our overall wellness. Stay tuned for my upcoming article on assessing if you are getting the best rest that you possibly can.