Can’t Sleep? Reset your Circadian Rhythm

As we move from summer to fall and the days are getting shorter, it is a good idea to adjust your sleeping cycle as well. But, even more important than the actual sleep you get is what you do during your waking hours.

Have you ever had a full night’s sleep only to wake in the morning feeling exhausted or like a truck hit you? As my body and mind got healthier, I was still waking up feeling tired and fatigued. I became determined to find a solution. If you have been feeling the same, try some of these tips which helped me tremendously:

  1. Waking Up: A consistent wake-up time is key (yes, even on the weekends). You’ll be honoring your body’s natural circadian rhythm, but you’ll also be taking advantage of the rise of cortisol, your natural “alarm clock.” It may get a bad rap for being responsible for that “fight-or-flight” feeling, but cortisol naturally rises in the morning to help you wake up to start the day. You don’t really need artificial stimulants like coffee or sugar. Also, when waking early, you can take advantage of the morning sun exposure directly on your skin. Go stand outside for 15 minutes or take a walk – the sunlight in the morning feeds your body essential Vitamin D and helps with the production of melatonin for a good night’s sleep. What started for me as a self-imposed challenge to wake up every day at 5:30 a.m. has turned into a healthy habit that contributes to a positive difference in my sleep quality.
  2. Evening Routine: More and more studies are showing that limiting artificial light, especially blue light, after the sun goes down, is essential for a good night’s sleep. When we expose ourselves to light from any type of “screen” (TV, phone, iPad, etc.) and light above us (think bright fluorescents in stores), we are essentially telling our cells that it is still daytime. Melatonin wants to be released to help wind us down after the sun goes down, but our hypothalamus doesn’t know the difference between sun light and artificial light. So, turn off the screen, read a book or enjoy some candle light before bed. My night time routine involves spending time sitting outside, petting my dogs, 15-20 minutes of meditation, and reading. All of these practices are done without artificial light.
  3. Movement: Any type of movement during the day can help improve sleep. The jury is still out on the best time and what kind, but it’s commonly known that movement releases anti-stress hormones into our body. In our on-the-go society, we tend to be in a continual low-grade state of sympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight). Any opportunity you can take throughout the day to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) will show up in all areas of our life. Try starting or ending your day with a yoga, breathe, or meditation practices – all of which help activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Studies like this one show that yoga and meditation have a significant effect on quality of sleep. I start my day with 30 minutes of asana (postures) and pranayama (breath work), and end each day with 15 minutes of meditation right before bed.
  4. Watch WHEN You Eat: Eating well is a given to health. But when to eat is equally important. Often, we approach food from an external relationship – how does it look, what does it taste like, and have social experiences around food. However, the real power of food starts after it enters your body and how it affects your metabolic system. This article from April 2019 discusses how timing of eating can help reset our circadian rhythm. Also, keep in mind that it takes a tremendous amount of energy to digest food, so allowing yourself a break before you sleep is important for quality of sleep. Ayurveda as well as the old advice of my grandmom have informed my own way of eating. I eat between the hours of 10 and 4, giving body the chance to rest, digest, and grow.
  5. Quiet Time: While I’m not sure exactly if having some form of “quiet time” in your day helps your circadian rhythm, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out its importance in creating better sleep. How many times have you gone to bed and immediately your mind wants to begin to process the day and start to problem solve? Having some form of quiet time during the day allows for self-reflection (leading to personal growth), limits stimulation to the brain (creating more relaxation), and helps with emotional self-regulation. Some great forms of quiet time to help with sleep: a short walk on a familiar route, meditation, yoga nidra, closing your eyes and letting your mind wander, petting you cat or dog, or sitting in a sauna or steam room. Give yourself the benefit of time without thinking and you may find yourself happier and sleeping better as well.
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