Our bodies operate on something called our Circadian Rhythm. This 24-hour cycle is basically your body’s “internal clock”, where physical, mental, and behavioral changes occur that keep our essential functions and processes working properly. These processes include things like hormonal changes, body temperature, and eating habits.
The light and darkness of day and night, respectively6, have a direct affect on our circadian rhythm. This is why it is so important to be conscious of our sleep habits, because of the way our environment affects our body’s and how our body’s respond naturally to our environment.
Below are the four biological processes that affect your circadian rhythm:
Cells: Cells in our brain are affected by lightness and darkness. When our eyes capture light or darkness, this sends signals to our brain and body regarding sleep and wakefulness.
Hormones: Melatonin and cortisol cause sleepiness and alertness to the brain.
Body temperature and metabolism: Our body temperature drops when we sleep and rises when we wake. Similarly, our metabolism rates fluctuate throughout the day.
Other factors: Work hours, age, physical activity, and other lifestyle habits.
Consistency is Key
When it comes to getting quality sleep, it's not just the length of time, but the consistency in the sleep schedule.
Research completed by NPJ Digital Medicine showed that the variability in sleep habits significantly affected participants' mood and depression, regardless of the total number of hours slept.
How can we apply this to a better sleep plan?
When creating your sleep schedule, aim to be consistent through the week and the weekend. Of course there will always be exceptions, but the more consistent you can be, the easier it will become routine.
Creating a Supportive Environment
Your body’s internal clock is significantly impacted by environmental cues such as light, hence why this rhythm is directly influenced by day and night.
This can mean getting in enough natural light during daytime, and limiting light exposure at night when nearing bedtime hours.
Blue light is the type of light that comes through electronics such as our phones. This light is a major interrupter of our natural sleep cycles, as it blocks melatonin which is the hormone which makes us sleepy... Not only can it hinder our sleep health, but it also has side effects on our vision longer term.
As hard as it may seem at times, the best way to avoid the effects of blue light is by turning off its sources. Because the sun also gives off blue light, it is important once it is dark to dim the lighting on electronic devices such as your TV, your laptop, and your phone.
Blue light glasses are also a popular option in order to filter the amount of blue light entering your eyes after dark.
This isn't just important for adults, but it's also important to consider this when helping kids build a healthy sleep routine. In fact, research has shown that kids who get in more sleep perform better academically, and have less emotional and behavior issues.
Other ways to support your sleep environment and circadian rhythm:
Make it as dark as possible. You can use a sleep mask, tie a bandana/headband around your eyes, or put blankets over the windows (I currently have blankets and shades up).
Make sure the temperature is right: 65°F to 75°F, and dress accordingly and have appropriate layers of bedding.
Move distractions to another room.
Make sure you won’t be disturbed (obviously depending on your household and family members, this might be a joke).
Turn off electronics at least an hour before sleeping.
Keep to a regular bedtime routine.
Wind down before trying to sleep.
Don't eat or drink before bed.
Don’t toss and turn waiting to fall asleep. This can be a great time to try breathing exercises or guided meditation. Have it ready before bed so you don't have to mess with electronics in the middle of the night. You can download one or use an app so it's accessible while still on Airplane Mode.
How does one set a sleep schedule? Like any other behavior chance, it starts with taking inventory of your current lifestyle.
As we know from my first blog article on sleep, you probably need around 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
If you were just starting out with running, you'd probably start with intermittent jogging rather than jumping right into a 5k, right? Likewise, once you have your ideal schedule in mind, the goal is to ease into it, rather than jump right on in.
Expect that it's going to take time to adjust to a schedule, do your best to be patient with the process while you get used to your new routine.
To get started, take some inventory of your current sleep habits. If you haven’t already, you can pull out a journal and review the prompts in my previous sleep blog on creating a better sleep plan.
Once you have some baseline info, let’s start simple.
Take note of that time you get to bed each night, and for the next week, push back that time in increments of 15 minutes until you reach your target time. For example, if you currently go to bed around 11pm and want to change that to 9pm, try to go to bed at 10:45. Then continue until you reach your goal of 9pm.
Remember, be patient with yourself! As much as we want quick solutions, meaningful change is a process and will take as long as it takes. Whatever you try, give it a chance to succeed. If you don't, you'll be setting yourself up for failure.
Also keep in mind that you're in the process of learning new skills because, chances are, something else in life is going to show up and disrupt your sleep!
Use each sleep cycle as it's own learning opportunity - reflecting on what worked or what didn't.
Over time, it will become easier!
In my next blog, we will explore creating a bedtime routine and dip into how the environment of where we sleep also plays a huge role in our sleep health, and how we can make changes to that in order to improve our sleep.
Like the idea of setting up a new routine? Try using your sleep plan alongside the 21-Day Mindfulness Challenge and not only see your sleep improve, but feel better physically, emotionally and mentally, to!
Click the button below and get started: