In this post, you will be served a palatable combination of scientific language and ideas, with easy-to-understand, practical takeaways that will to help make this potentially complex concept much more digestible. Grab a plate, and let’s dig in!
What is Circadian Rhythm?
“Circadian” finds its roots in Latin’s “circa diem”, meaning “approximately a day”. Circadian rhythm is a 24 hour cycle in the physiological processes of living beings — humans, plants, animals, fungi, etc. It is a built-in mechanism, but can most definitely be affected by external stimuli, as we will see later.
To understand some of the science, we gotta head over to the head… or the brain, rather. The hypothalamus — which is found towards the base of the brain — is responsible for connecting the nervous system to the endocrine system. This is important to note because circadian rhythm is centered big-time around the hormones of melatonin, cortisol, serotonin, etc., and since we know that the endocrine system is in charge of the production and regulation of hormones in the body, we can use this info to better understand how this process works.
Without getting too far into the science of it, let’s do a little breakdown of what happens in the body during this process:
Your body’s biological clock is dictated by a group of cells inside the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is connected to the optic nerve. The optic nerves — that are right behind your beautiful eyeballs — detect light from the sun in the morning, which signals the rise of our body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and delays the release of hormones like melatonin, thus waking us up. This is why it’s so important to be mindful about what kind of/how much light we are exposing ourselves to in the evening, since the blue light from our electronic devices + the light from our household bulbs mimic the natural light of the sun. When the light hits our eyes, serotonin and cortisol will naturally say ‘wassup playa’ because, naturally, our body thinks we should be awake.
Now let’s talk hormones, baby!
As you can see in the graph above, cortisol and melatonin are constants in the body during all parts of the day/night, but they each spike at their respective times, and good thing they do!
“Cortisol” has almost become a negative word in our vocabulary since we associate it so strongly with (chronic) stress. However, if it weren’t for cortisol, we wouldn’t wake up in the morning! This hormone peaks in the morning time, which gives us optimal levels of alertness, concentration, and memory, making us our cognitive best during this time.
Melatonin on the other hand is the warm, cozy blanket of the hormones. Cortisol levels begin to dip in the afternoon, while melatonin starts to increase… (ever feel an afternoon slump? especially after eating?? because you’re using energy to digest your breakfast and lunch??? instead of feeling full of vitality like you do in the morning???? say, after fasting all night???? not to mention cortisol is dropping and melatonin and increasing?????). When the ‘wakeup’ hormones are not releasing at peak volume anymore, and melatonin starts kicking in, that’s your body’s natural clock ticking towards bedtime.
If we have a scattered sleep schedule, or work night shift/are night owls, or fill our eyes and brains with stimuli of all kinds late into the hours of prime-time melatonin secretion, we could be setting ourselves up for a rough night’s sleep.
When we don’t sleep well, we don’t function well; we are irritable, foggy, groggy, impatient, anxious, etc. This is why night-shift workers are 40% more likely to develop depression than daytime workers — which is an INSANE thing if you actually think about it — according to a study shared by Harvard Medical School in their killer blog about how the sleep/wake cycles affect mood.
So, how do we fix our broken (internal) clock?
1. Stick to a regular-ish sleep schedule as much as possible
This is easier said than done, but having some kind of general sleep schedule is beneficial, especially when talking circadian rhythm. Up with the sun and down with the sun is ideal, but just do whatever you can/whatever feels best to you, friend.
2. Limit blue light 1 hour before bed
Set your alarm, do what you gotta do, then put that crap away. Remember how we learned about artificial light mimicking sunlight and how that delays melatonin? We want to leave the natural highs and lows of our hormones to do their thang as much as possible.
3. Dim your lights/use candles/switch to a warmer-toned lampshade after sun-down
Red and amber light bulbs or amber glasses are cool too, but they are just one more frilly item to purchase — that said, if you’re going for HAM for this circadian rhythm sh*t, go for it! While you’re at it, buy me a pair of amber glasses too.
- Amber glasses we like
- Amber light bulbs we like
- Multi-colored bulbs, if you want red, amber, and the rest, AND you’re try’na party
4. Keep your room cool, between 60-68 degrees F.
5. Try supplementing magnesium at night
Listen to your body, but maybe give it a try! Magnesium glycinate, sulfate, lactate, citrate are all good for relaxation, sleep, stress, etc.
6. HYDRATE IMMEDIATELY upon waking
Brush your pearly whites if you want, but make yourself a glorious mix of lemon + salt water to rehydrate after your body organically detoxifies itself during your night’s sleep.
To see the benefits of adding a pinch of salt to your H2o, click the button below to check out a salty post!
7. Go outside for fresh air and sunlight no more than 20 minutes after waking
You don’t have to be out there long. Ideally, taking 5-10 minutes to breathe and do a few movements to wake your body up. Quality of movement + intentionality ranks higher than how long you’re moving for. Do whatever will make you happy and excited to do it (ideally) everyday — dance to a song or two, twist around, wag your tail, circle your arms and hips, bounce in place, do some sun salutations, do a couple burpees (if you’re a ‘jump-right-into-the-deep-end kinda human)… Just something to get the lymph flowing, your heart rate elevated, and your mind centered on being awake + ALIVE! Sometimes I just pump my arms up and down, inhaling with the reach, exhaling with the pull, for about 20 reps, then I’m still, feeling the fresh oxygen flowing in my body, my heart beating, then maybe I’ll do another set or two. Again, it’s quality not quantity — whatever YOU WANT TO DO THAT DAY. You’re the boss, Boss.
8. Stop caffeine 6-8 hours before you plan to go to sleep
This may be asking a lot, but I believe in you. If this seems very unattainable right now, try switching to green tea or something with a lower caffeine content. OR eat some fruit for a happy buzz. OR do some energizing breathing. Get creative!
9. Give yourself a sleep sanctuary
Make your bed just for sleeping (and not for checking the news, emails, your social life, blah blah). Leave work at the “office” — wherever that may be for you nowadays.
10. Exercise daily
Not only does this do what we all know it does to benefit our health, but it also raises our core body temperature, but it also gets energy-boosting/other good-for-your-general-wellbeing hormones up and runnin’, like HGH, epinephrine and norepinephrine, cortisol, testosterone, estrogen and progesterone, serotonin, and Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) — a neurotransmitter that helps stimulate the production of new cells in the brain. ALL AROUND GOOD SH*T, agreed?
11. Be mindful WHEN you are eating
You don’t have to be a strict intermittent faster, but refraining from eating large meals right before bed could help to keep your biological clock-a-tickin’ properly. Double board certified physician Amy Shah, M.D. says:
“All of our cells and organs have clocks that determine when our genes should be turned on and turned off…you can’t do all actions in the body at once. So when the sun goes down, usually the actions of digestion are turned off and the actions of repair and restoration are turned on. If you eat late at night, you may get slower digestion, inappropriate acid production, and more insulin resistance. This leads to fat gain, G.I. symptoms, and even diabetes…”
You can take this knowledge to the extreme and REALLY live your life in accordance to your most optimal circadian rhythm… or, you can try implementing one or a few of these tips into your daily life and see how you feel… or, you can simply say “huh, interesting” and close the tab, never to think about it again. Whatever the result may be, there is awareness in it, and that’s the sole reason why I write this jazzy stuff.
Let us know what you want to see next! Stay balanced, stay sexy.