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Can You Optimize Your Circadian Rhythm?

What’s one thing we can’t get enough of? According to the Centre for Disease Control, it’s sleep. Up to a third of us are not sleeping enough, and it’s affecting our overall health in negative ways. “Sleep is often regarded as a period of inactivity (wasting time), which reflects a poor understanding of the ‘work’ that’s being done during the sleep period,” Dr. Constance H. Fung, an Associate Clinical Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, told Salon magazine, citing the cultural pressure we experience to stay awake and be “productive” for longer and longer each day. But just because our mind isn’t engaged in report-writing or account-keeping, it doesn’t mean that our circadian rhythm isn’t always as work.

Our immune system, our brains, and our muscles and organs are all using this rest period as an opportunity to keep us healthy — by reducing inflammation or healing injuries. A lack of sleep can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety. In short, sleep is important. So how do you make sure you’re getting enough?

It’s all about optimizing your circadian rhythm.

Let’s kick this off with a quick explanation of what we mean when we talk about the body’s circadian rhythm. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences defines it fairly simply as “physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle” — and it’s also important to mention that this rhythm or cycle is dictated primarily by light and dark. Circadian rhythm affects body temperature, digestion, and hormone release but the most important thing it controls is sleep.

So, if you struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, and you get up in the morning without feeling rested and energetic, it could be that your circadian rhythm requires an adjustment. And while sleep hygiene involves a wide range of factors, circadian rhythms are mostly about light: the kind we’re exposed to and the times of day those exposures occur.

Beatrice Society - Circadian Rhythm light through window

Dr. Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist and associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine who researches the intersection between brain health and sleep. His YouTube episode on the subject of sleep offers advice on healthy sleep habits with a focus on the circadian rhythm.

Some of his key recommendations are:

1. Work sunlight into your morning routine. Make it a priority to get outside within your first hour of being awake. While you don’t want to stare directly at the sun, you do want sunlight to reach the photoreceptors of your eyes so skip the hat and sunglasses. Spend at least 10 minutes outside in sunny weather and up to an hour on overcast days. Repeat this before sunset in the late afternoon or early evening (depending on where you live).

2. Set a sleep schedule. Ideally, you want to wake up at the same time every day (yes, that means weekends, too) and go to sleep when you feel tired rather than pushing your body to stay awake.

3. Moderate your light intake. In a perfect world, you could find your way from your bed to the bathroom at 2 am using moonlight alone. If you can’t, then at least avoid bright overhead lights which will throw off your circadian rhythms if viewed between the hours of 10 pm and 4 am. Above all, do NOT look at your phone or tablet just before or during the window when you’re supposed to be sleeping — neither scrolling social media nor answering work emails is conducive to a solid rest and the light coming from those devices makes us want to stay awake even longer.

4. Limit naps. Huberman is himself a fan of napping but the habit isn’t for everyone. Some people feel recharged after an afternoon rest but others wake feeling groggy and even nauseous. If you’re going to nap, says Huberman, keep your sleep time to under 90 minutes to avoid sleep inertia and try to schedule it for between 1 pm and 3 pm so that it doesn’t disrupt your regular bedtime.

Of course there are other contributing factors (like caffeine, alcohol, medications, exercise, and sleep environment) that play a role in sleep hygiene but our circadian rhythm tops the list of things to address if you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep.

Dr. Huberman calls sleep the best immune booster, the best trauma release, and the best nootropic to boost brain performance available to the human body. Also, it’s free — so go get some.

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