Sleep. It's one of the few things we absolutely can't live without, but also something most of us rarely think about and rarely get enough of. According to the National Sleep Foundation, at least 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders. These disorders have a myriad of causes, from environmental factors to physical and emotional ailments, but all have one thing in common: they are detrimental to our health and well-being. Sleep is important not only for rest, but also for repair, as many body systems undergo a period of restoration during normal sleep.
March is National Sleep Awareness Month, the perfect time to implement healthy sleep habits and think about what you can do to get a good night's rest.
Healthy sleep begins with a natural, internal process that helps keep our bodies on track - the circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythms run on a 24-hour cycle where we feel most awake during the day and sleepiest at night. Usually it is synchronized with the day-night cycle This biological process helps produce the hormone melatonin in the evening, influencing you to feel sleepy, and slows that production in the morning when you're exposed to light, which allows you to wake up and be alert. The timing of the circadian rhythm can vary from person to person. This is why we have "night owls" and "morning people."
What is a Circadian Rhythm, Exactly?
Your body's 'biological clock' produces circadian rhythms and regulates the timing of things in your body, like when you want to sleep or eat. These rhythms are named circadian, which means "about a day," because they tend to occur approximately every 24-hours. Natural factors in your body produce circadian rhythms, but signals in the environment, like daylight, exercise, and temperature also affect them.
Problems can occur when your biological clock is not lined up with the day-night cycle. These types of rhythm abnormalities have been linked to health conditions like obesity, diabetes, depression, and sleep disorders.
What Controls Circadian Rhythms?
Circadian rhythms ensure that your body's processes are synched and optimized during each 24-hour period. They aren't unique to humans though—they also help some animals sleep and stay safe in their shelters at night, while causing some animals to be awake and hunt at night and sleep during the day.
In humans, circadian rhythms control many body processes; for instance, your digestive system produces proteins to make sure you eat on schedule, while the endocrine system regulates hormones to match your energy expenditures during the day.
The circadian rhythms for each of the systems in the body are strongly influenced by a 'master clock' in the brain — the suprachiasmatic nucleus — which sends signals to different parts of the body at the appropriate times.
How Does a Circadian Rhythm Get Out of Sync?
A disrupted circadian rhythm can occur either due to an internal malfunction or a mismatch between your body clock and external factors like social or work environment (for example, if you've stayed up very late watching a movie or you have to work the night shift). Additional factors that can disrupt your circadian rhythm are:
- Changing work shifts a lot
- Not keeping consistent sleep and wake times
- Insufficient light exposure during the day and bright light exposure at night
- Poor sleep habits (drinking caffeine or alcohol too close to bedtime, looking at your phone or computer too late at night)
- Jet lag
- Certain medications that can cause sleepiness or sleeplessness.
What Are the Most Common Circadian Rhythm-Related Sleep Disorders?
- Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder: Some people feel alert at night and often can't go to sleep until the middle of the night, causing them to sleep well into the following day.
- Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder: Some people fall asleep early in the evening, from 6:00-9:00 p.m., and wake in the early hours of the morning at say, 2:00 a.m. This often happens to people in their later years.
- Jet Lag: This is when circadian rhythms have been disturbed by air travel through two or more time zones. It is difficult for people to function well at first when they are in a new time zone.
- Shift Work Disorder: Night workers whose schedules conflict with the body's natural circadian rhythm are often sleepy and have ongoing tiredness.
If you experience insomnia, daytime sleepiness, difficulty waking up, depression, or sleep loss, talk to your healthcare provider. She or he may recommend that you keep a sleep diary or meet with a sleep specialist. Treatment options like lifestyle and behavior therapy (getting more daylight exposure, limiting naps, getting exercise, and practicing good sleep habits) as well as medication and chronotherapy (shifting your sleep/wake cycle by progressively delaying sleep over time) can alleviate the effects of circadian rhythm sleep disorders.
Summit Sleep Services is a comprehensive sleep disorder facility that is accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. We serve the needs of Summit and the greater Knoxville area. We diagnose and treat many sleep disorders including:
- Sleep Disordered Breathing
- Restless Legs Syndrome
- Periodic Limb Movement Disorder
- Shift Work Disorder
For additional information or to schedule a consultation, contact Summit Sleep Services at 865-909-0744 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.