Have you ever noticed that our bodies are full of rhythms and cycles? Our hearts never miss a beat. Our lungs never fail to breathe. How about the stride in the way we walk? There’s rhythm there too! Have you ever listened closely to the words we speak? Rhythm is even present in our language.
These body rhythms exist for a good reason – without these little mechanisms our bodies would be a hot mess!
Today I’m here to talk about the ever-important rhythm in our body, the circadian rhythm (or often referred to as our “body clock”) how it works and the impact it has on our physical and mental well-being. This 24 hour internal body clock governs our sleep-wake cycle but how the heck does it exactly work and could it be influencing other bodily functions?
To break it down simply, our body clocks are controlled by something called the Suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is basically a group of nerve cells located in an area of our brain called the hypothalamus. When it starts to get dark outside, our optic nerves send signals to the hypothalamus and then the SCN starts to produce melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy.
Once asleep, we then go through a series of stages while our circadian rhythm continues to regulate the production of certain hormones and bodily functions. During sleep our immune system will focus on fighting any infections (this is why we sometimes get inflammation during the night!), our digestive functions may be delayed to prevent interruptions to our sleep (this is why it’s a good idea to avoid eating a few hours before bedtime), and we may experience slightly higher body temperatures (you should always sleep in a cool bedroom). Our levels of melatonin usually start to peak at around 2-4 am and then as it gets closer to daylight, our SCN will trigger the release of cortisol and that helps us to wake up and get going.
Okay, so now that you have a better idea of how the circadian rhythm functions, let’s talk about what can happen when it’s interrupted. When our precious body clock is thrown into confusion it can disrupt many parts of our health. In fact, the Center of Disease Control and Prevention states that insufficient sleep is a major public health problem!
Lack of sleep is linked to all sorts of issues not only in our inability to remember things or perform important daily tasks, but it’s linked to depression, anxiety, emotional irritability, and even car accidents. It has been studied that just one night without sleep will cause our T cells to drop. These cells are the important immune regulating cells. If lack of sleep is a common occurrence for you, could you imagine what it could mean for your immune system? It’s no wonder that there are several studies that link lack of sleep to autoimmune disorders. Another thing we also have to consider is that our body clocks affect our appetite. They increase the levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and contribute to our cravings of sugary and carb heavy foods the next day, leading to weight gain.
Clearly our circadian rhythms are very important to our overall health.
But what can we do about all of the internal and external factors disrupting our body clocks and impacting our sleep? We know we need to get better sleep but where do we start?
One of the biggest things we need to consider is our sleep pattern. When our bodies are used to resting and awakening at regular times, the less likely we will experience any disturbances. We also need to actively reduce the amount of stress we hold onto, especially the long-term kind. Stress releases cortisol, which causes an imbalance of our hormones and disrupts our sleep rhythm. When cortisol stays elevated, we don’t receive the signal to wind down and rest.
Sometimes our sleep is disturbed by environmental factors like artificial light, electronic devices, temperature, and noise. We should strive to match our own environments to those of our ancestors: super dark, cool temps, quiet and no electronics.
Another important factor is our diet. The first is to eliminate caffeine or reduce the amount we consume from our diet (for obvious reasons). Next is alcohol. It can be another big factor affecting sleep because it causes dehydration and effects blood sugar. We should also eat a diet consisting of whole, natural foods – these are plenty of foods that are full of the necessary vitamins and minerals that promote sleep (just don’t eat the overly processed, junky kind).
One other thing I’ll mention that may help you fall asleep easier is moving your body throughout the day. If you don’t exercise, try starting out with something gentle like walking or yoga and see if this helps to improve your sleep.
I pride myself on being a healthy person – I should be; it’s my professional after all! But for years I was a chronic night owl. I would routinely stay awake too late, catching up on emails and work or social media when I knew I should be catching up on zzz’s. All that has changed now since realizing the human body was created to be living within natural cycles and rhythms and should be supported as best as possible.
I encourage you to obey the laws of nature when it comes to sleep. If you do so you’ll be naturally supporting your own personal development and overall well being.
Wishing you lots of zzz’s,