A recent survey revealed a staggering statistic; the average Briton only manages 6 hours and 19 minutes of sleep per night. Furthermore, 40% of adults in the same survey stated they never manage to reach the national recommended average of 8 hours sleep per night.
One of the biggest factors behind not getting enough sleep is lifestyle choices affecting the circadian rhythm of our bodies. But what exactly is your body’s circadian rhythm and why is it so important?
What is Your Circadian Rhythm?
Your Circadian Rhythm is perhaps best thought of as an internal 24-hour body clock. It runs in the background of your brain and is responsible for many biological and physiological process including the rises and dips in your alertness throughout the day. Many describe it as the sleep/wake cycle.
In most normal adults the biggest dips in energy are between 2am and 4am, followed by 1pm to 3pm (usually after eating lunch). After around 15 waking hours – particularly after the onset of darkness – the circadian rhythm begins to slow down to allow us to sleep.
How Does the Circadian Rhythm Affect Your Body?
As just mentioned, the circadian rhythm is responsible for telling our body to carry out certain processes and certain times during the day. For instance, during the evening our bodies with slowly secrete the hormone melatonin which tells our body it’s time to go to sleep.
This process is usually linked to the light conditions i.e. the hormone is released when it becomes dark. One of the reasons so many Britons struggle with sleep is because they spend their last waking minutes looking at bright screens, tricking the body into thinking it is still light and preventing the effective release of melatonin.
Similarly, winter can be a tricky time of year since it is dark for large portions of traditional waking hours, confusing our body clocks. It’s also one of the reasons that night-shift workers find it so difficult to sleep during the day and stay awake at work.
With that in mind, is it possible to alter your internal body clock?
Can You Change Your Circadian Rhythm?
You already unwittingly change your circadian rhythm at least twice a year – when the clocks move forward and backwards between British Summer Time and Greenwich Mean Time.
You will have experienced something similar if you have travelled to a country in a different time zone. Jet lag is the process of your body clock trying to adjust to its new surroundings, and it’s usually able to do so within a week.
If you want to change your circadian rhythm so that you are consistently going to sleep earlier or later then there are many steps you can take to nudge your body clock in the right direction.
If you want to “switch off” earlier, start by moving your usual meal times forwards and avoid caffeine after 3pm as it can delay the release of melatonin. When exercising try to do so in the morning rather than in the evening.
Finally, and most importantly, light is still the biggest environmental influencer of your body clock.
Therefore, one hour before your new earlier bedtime, begin to switch of most of the lights and turn the remaining lights down to a low setting if possible. Put away all devices that emit so-called “blue light” such as phones, tablets, TVs, or computers and get into bed in as dark a room as possible.
Conversely, when rising earlier than usual turn on as many lights as possible to simulate the start of a new day; kick-starting your body clock for an energy boost.
Make Better Choices to Strengthen Your Internal Body Clock
Your circadian rhythm has a large influence over energy levels during the day and your ability to stay focused, so it makes sense to pay more attention to it. You can reinforce your sleep/wake cycle by going to bed and rising in the morning at similar times throughout the week (including weekends) and it can be altered by making changes to your lifestyle.
By reinforcing your body clock, you are more likely to have higher quality sleep and suffer from fewer dips in energy throughout the working day.
It’s also possible to shift your body’s internal clock backwards and forwards by altering your lifestyle habits. Making changes to mealtimes, exercise routines, and other evening habits can have a big effect on when your body becomes ready to “switch off” or “power up”.
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