Circadian Rhythm: Fix Your Internal Clock for Better Sleep

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If you have a disordered circadian rhythm, you are at increased risk of drowsiness, depression, brain fog, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Fortunately, there are ways to fix your circadian rhythm and optimize your whole-body health.

Circadian rhythm refers to many organisms’ natural internal clock, which dictates the sleep-wake cycle, the feeding-fasting cycle, and other critical biological processes. A healthy circadian rhythm enhances sleep, mood, and cognition while reducing your risk for chronic diseases.

Keep reading to learn more about your internal clock, the signs it may need fixing, and how to reset your circadian rhythm.

At PrimeHealth in Denver, we’re dedicated to helping people like you overcome uncommon and hard-to-treat health problems, including sleep disorders. Schedule your free consultation today!

Understanding Circadian Rhythm

Circadian rhythm is the internal body clock that regulates countless biological processes, including hormone production, metabolism, and the sleep-wake cycle over 24 hours. Most mammals have circadian rhythms, including humans.

Here are the health benefits of a balanced, healthy circadian rhythm:

  • Better sleep patterns, quality, and duration
  • Enhanced mood and cognitive function
  • Reduced risk of many chronic diseases
  • Improved overall health and wellness

Reading that list, it’s probably obvious why I emphasize circadian rhythm optimization with my patients — it’s a big deal for your health overall! Most people will notice significant improvements in their health (mental, emotional, and physical) by changing the hours that they sleep and wake up.

I have had patients go from being “night-owls” to going to sleep by 10pm and waking up by 7am, and see drastic improvements in their energy levels and mental health. For most people, sleeping during these hours is critical to feel their best.

Located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus, this biological clock operates on a 24-hour cycle, responding to the earth’s natural light-dark cycle. The SCN is also called the “master clock,” and it contains about 20,000 neurons receiving direct input from the eyes.

How long does it take your circadian rhythm to adjust? It can take a few days for your circadian rhythm to adjust to a new time zone, daylight savings time, or jet lag. It may take a few weeks of strategic lifestyle changes to adjust your circadian rhythm to night shift work.

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What Are Zeitgebers?

Your circadian rhythm is regulated by zeitgebers, which tell your body how close to bedtime it is.

Common zeitgebers include:

  • When you see light
  • How bright that light is
  • Where on the color spectrum that light is
  • When you eat
  • When you exercise
  • When you socialize
  • Temperature
  • Which medications you take
  • When you take medications

In other words, when I (or another healthcare provider) tell you to exercise at a different time, use blue-blocking glasses, or put your phone down a few hours before bed, we’re trying to adjust your environment’s zeitgebers.

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Signs of Circadian Rhythm Issues

Recognizing the signs of circadian rhythm disruption is crucial for maintaining overall well-being and daytime productivity.

Here are the most common short-term signs of circadian rhythm issues:

  • Insomnia
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Decreased alertness
  • Irritability 
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Brain fog
  • Excessive hunger and craving carbs and sugar

In the long-term, you may experience these consequences of untreated circadian rhythm disruption:

6 Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders

Below are the officially recognized types of circadian rhythm sleep disorders. These disorders go beyond a short-term circadian rhythm disruption into a full-blown disorder that can significantly impact your body’s ability to heal itself.

1. Shift Work Disorder

Sometimes called night shift disorder, shift work disorder impacts people who work a night shift or on a rotating schedule. With this circadian rhythm disorder, your work schedule prevents you from getting high-quality sleep.

Shift work disorder may result in insomnia, drowsiness during day and night, and other chronic health consequences.

2. Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder

This common circadian rhythm disorder is characterized by falling asleep later in the night than you should, resulting in difficulty waking up on time. You may not sleep enough, causing daytime drowsiness, anxiety, brain fog, and other symptoms.

People who consider themselves night owls may suffer from a delayed sleep-wake phase disorder.

Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder can interfere with your job, school, social life, or family responsibilities.

3. Advanced Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder

Advanced sleep-wake phase disorder is characterized by waking up too early in the morning because you struggle to stay awake in the early evening.

This circadian clock disorder may disrupt your job, school, social life, or family responsibilities.

4. Jet Lag Disorder

Jet lag disorder is typically a temporary condition in which traveling across two or more time zones disrupts your circadian rhythm. Your sleep-wake rhythm falls out of sync with local time, so you may feel tired or awake at the wrong time of day or night.

Commonly referred to as “jet lag,” this circadian rhythm disorder can disrupt your sleep-wake rhythm even more if you travel east, as opposed to traveling west.

“Social jet lag*” is when you engage in social activities on weekends much later than on weekdays, leading to lower sleep quality and more daytime drowsiness. *This is not a recognized disorder, just a colloquial term.

5. Irregular Sleep-Wake Rhythm Disorder

Irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder is characterized by multiple brief periods of sleep and wake, preventing vital stages of deep sleep from occurring.

Most of my patients suffering from irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder sufferers report not feeling rested after sleep. They usually have to take multiple naps during the day or take excessive amounts of stimulants or caffeine to cope with this disorder and catch up on their sleep debt.

6. Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Rhythm Disorder

Non-24-hour sleep-wake rhythm disorder (N24) is when your sleep-wake rhythm is not synced with the earth’s 24-hour day-night cycle. Your sleep times may slowly get more and more out of sync, often due to abnormal light exposure.

Periods of insomnia and daytime drowsiness may alternate with periods of no symptoms when your circadian rhythm happens to align with the 24-hour day. Previously known as free-running rhythm disorder, N24 is common in people who are completely blind.

10 Ways to Fix Your Circadian Rhythm

If you’re struggling with your body’s internal clock and sleep disorders, below are 10 ways to help fix your circadian rhythm.

How do I keep a regular sleep schedule? Set alarms to go to sleep and to wake up, so you know your bedtime and wake time are consistent. Optimize your sleep environment by reducing noise, light, and room temperature. Maintain sleep hygiene, ideal sleep habits, and avoid alcohol or caffeine late in the day.

1. Limit Blue Light Exposure

Blue light is bright light emitted mainly from electronic screens, such as cell phones, TVs, and computers. Using electronics after sunset can trick your brain into thinking the sun is still out, disrupting your circadian rhythm.

Turn off electronics (including your smartphone) an hour before bedtime. Consider reading a book, prepping meals, washing dishes, or meditating for that final hour before going to sleep.

2. Optimize Your Sleep Environment

Optimize your sleep environment by keeping your room cool, dark, and quiet.

A cool room temperature maintains a lower body temperature, which promotes melatonin production that helps you sleep.

Keep sunlight out of your bedroom if you have to sleep during the day. Even if you’re sleeping at night, excess light seeping into your room (such as from a hallway or night light) can reduce your sleep quality and ability to go to sleep in the first place.

Noise interrupts your sleep stages and reduces your sleep quality. Even white noise or playing music to go to sleep may lower the quality of your REM sleep. If you live in a noisy apartment or street, having some white noise could be helpful to drown that out. 

Some ambient noises are unavoidable, but you might consider investing in earplugs.

3. Keep a Regular Sleep Schedule

Go to sleep and wake up at consistent times, and your sleep quality and overall health will improve. PrimeHealth doctors encourage our patients to be patient when fixing their circadian rhythm. It takes a few weeks to form habits, but consistent sleep is vital to your overall well-being.

Remember, you need to get 7-9 hours of sleep every 24 hours. Make 7-9 hours your sleep routine, not a special occasion. Focus on going to bed at the same time each night (in no larger than a 30-minute window) to keep your sleep deficit low.

4. Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise contributes to overall good health, but it specifically helps you sleep better. Numerous studies show that exercise improves sleep quality and sleep duration.

To optimize your circadian rhythm, exercise at consistent times throughout the day.

Some experts (not all) say that exercising right before bed heats your body too much for effective sleeping. It’s best to work out earlier in the day so that your muscles can cool down for bedtime, releasing melatonin that helps you sleep.

Red light therapy in the evenings is one great way to improve your sleep quality. We love PlatinumLED, and they’ve offered a 5% discount to our readers — all you need to do is use that link!

5. Take Melatonin Supplements

Melatonin is the natural hormone that the pineal gland in your brain produces in response to stimuli such as darkness, helping you sleep. It is also a powerful antioxidant with many health benefits. Our ability to produce melatonin tends to decrease as we age.

If your melatonin production or sensitivity is dysfunctional, consider taking melatonin supplements. We offer our patients testing of night-time melatonin levels. 

Melatonin supplements are a safe first-line treatment for disordered sleep. I’ve seen numerous patients benefit from over-the-counter melatonin.

Bonus: Melatonin can also help with anxiety.

6. Consider Bright Light Therapy

Bright light therapy exposes individuals to artificial light for 20-120 minutes to reset their circadian rhythm. This therapy is particularly useful for night shift workers and people with post-stroke insomnia. (These bright lights are sometimes called sun lamps at retailers like Amazon.)

If used as directed by your healthcare provider, bright light therapy may help restore your natural circadian rhythm or adjust your internal clock to your life circumstances. 

Be careful how often and for how long you use these sun lamps — using them for too long, at the wrong time of day, or too often may actually worsen your sleep schedule.

7. Adjust Meal Times

Eating meals at consistent times may positively impact your circadian rhythm. Also, adjust your meal times so that you’re not eating right before bed.

Recent studies indicate that only eating during the daytime helps night shift workers sleep better and reduce their depression or anxiety symptoms. Consider only eating when the sun is out (during summertime) or at least 2 hours before your bedtime.

8. Manage Caffeine Intake

Do not consume caffeine within 6-8 hours of bedtime. Any caffeine intake can make it harder to sleep, and that can disrupt your circadian rhythm.

To improve circadian rhythm health, limit caffeine to the first half of your day, generally before 2pm at the latest. Caffeine is contained in coffee, soda, chocolate, energy drinks, and tea.

9. Avoid Alcohol

Even though alcohol is a depressant, research reveals that alcohol disrupts your circadian rhythm and sleep quality. (It is a neurotoxin, after all.) Many of our patients have noticed a significant reduction in sleep quality (reduced REM and deep sleep), as well as drastically reduced HRV (heart rate variability) after alcohol consumption.

It’s best to avoid alcohol altogether, especially if you are trying to fix your circadian rhythm.

Read more: Alcohol & IBS

10. Consult a Credentialed Physician

If you need help formulating a strategy to fix your circadian rhythm, or you need an expert to help diagnose and treat your unique situation, consult a sleep specialist.

At PrimeHealth, we help patients like you optimize their health by making lifestyle changes, such as sleep improvement. Quality sleep is critical to whole-body health. Invest in your wellness and see a qualified physician about your sleep problems.

Get the Support You Need

If you have a circadian rhythm disorder, you deserve to get the support you need. There are lifestyle changes you can adopt at home, but professional medical advice can also go a long way.

What if I can’t sleep? If you just can’t go to sleep, practice mindful breathing, meditate, pray, get up for a short period, lower your bedroom temperature, or try melatonin supplements. If nothing is working, talk to your doctor about solutions.

Conventional doctors may prescribe you sleeping medication with adverse side effects. Integrative doctors will work with you to formulate a treatment plan to help fix your unique circadian rhythms. Schedule your free phone consultation with PrimeHealth today!


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