How to Improve your Circadian Rhythm
Did you know circadian rhythm disruption is a major source of stress on the body? This post will walk you through what the circadian rhythm is, why it’s important and simple ways to support it for optimal health.
Disclaimer: the information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not designed to replace individualized recommendations from a practitioner. Always check with your doctor before adding supplements or making changes to your treatment plan. Additionally, please note that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
What is the circadian rhythm?
Your circadian rhythm is essentially your body’s internal clock system that orchestrates important cellular events at optimal times. Your body has a HUGE to-do list every day - from digestion to hormone production to muscle and DNA repair and everything in between - it is the circadian rhythm that sets the schedule.
You can think of the circadian rhythm kind of like a built in efficiency system - upregulating certain systems/enzymes that you need while awake and others while asleep. During the day it’s focused on metabolism, energy production, immune defense and at night it’s focused on DNA and tissue repair and detoxification.
The central clock, located in your hypothalamus, regulates sleep/wake cycles largely through production of melatonin (main circadian hormone). The central clock is regulated primarily through light and/or dark exposure.
Peripheral clocks located in tissues outside of the brain regulate local metabolic processes like glucose and lipid metabolism, hormone secretion, the immune system and even the microbiome. The peripheral clocks are regulated primarily through feeding and/or fasting.
Why is the circadian rhythm important?
A happy circadian rhythm is going to make sure that your body is efficient with all of the tasks it needs to complete. For example, during waking hours your CR regulates digestion and metabolism by making sure there are appropriate hormones and enzymes to break down food and absorb nutrients optimally. Bile production, which is essential for the absorption of fats and fat soluble vitamins as well as detoxification peaks midday. There are even noticeable changes in blood glucose regulation that mirror the activity of the circadian rhythm: subject’s adipose tissue displayed an insulin sensitivity pattern that mirrors the circadian rhythm.
During sleep hours your circadian rhythm is focusing on totally different, yet equally vital, tasks like detoxification and DNA/tissue repair.
Even your microbiome is influenced by your circadian rhythm (and vice versa). The bacteria fluctuate in numbers and location over the course of 24 hours based on what body systems are active at different times.
Species involved in protein breakdown were higher in daytime and species involved in detox are higher at night.
This internal clock does a lot to support optimal function and health. An unhealthy circadian rhythm is associated with increased risk for certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, obesity, depression, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Signs & Symptoms your circadian rhythm is out of whack:
Circadian misalignment can happen a few different ways:
Central clock doesn’t match the light/dark cycle (environment)
Central clock out of alignment with your behavior (eating/staying up)
Central clock out of alignment with your peripheral clocks
All can contribute to symptoms like:
poor blood sugar control
Falling asleep really early and waking up in the middle of the night
You sleep better on weekends vs weekdays (or vice versa)
Inability to sleep well + daytime sleepiness
What throws off your circadian rhythm?
Social jet lag (late on weekends but early during week)
Eating late at night (esp high fat or high sugar)
Exposure to blue light in evenings
Sleeping near blue light
Working night shift/changing schedules
High fat/high sugar diets
Supporting your circadian rhythm for optimal health:
Exposure to light or darkness is a powerful regulator of our circadian rhythm. By intentionally exposing ourselves to either light or dark at specific times we can get our circadian rhythm on track.
Morning: get exposure to sunlight (if possible) as close to waking as you can
Daytime: exposure to sunlight during the day is important
Evening: avoid blue light exposure once the sun goes down. This includes TVs, cellphones, computers, etc. Fortunately many of these devices now offer “night shift” modes or you could rock a pair of blue-light blocking glasses. (these are the ones I use if watching tv or working at night - not fashionable in the least bit but I do notice an improvement in sleep so I’ll take it!).
Try to keep your food intake to a consistent 12 hr eating window and 12 hr fasting window
Aim to have your bigger meals at breakfast and lunch with a smaller dinner
Stick to consistent meal timing whenever possible, especially if thrown off from recent travel
If you’ve recently traveled or changed your schedule, a 12-16 hr fast may help reset your circadian rhythm
Polyphenols (from plants/red wine) can help minimize circadian rhythm disruptions
Avoid processed, high fat/high sugar meals especially in the evening
Consider trialing tart cherry juice at night (contains natural melatonin) to improve sleep duration and quality
Consume quality probiotics and prebiotics (onion, garlic, asparagus, artichokes) to keep your microbiome healthy and happy
Since intense exercise can raise cortisol levels, avoid partaking in intense exercise within 2-3 hours of bedtime. If exercising at night stick to lower intensity, restorative exercise like walks, yoga, stretching, pilates, etc.
What about night shift work?
Shift work certainly poses challenges for the circadian rhythm. The biggest thing you can do to support yourself during shift work is to establish and stick to a schedule that:
keeps a 12 hour feeding and 12 hour fasting window
allows you to see natural sunlight at some point during your “day”
avoid exposure to blue light during your “night”
Circadian Rhythm Summary
Our circadian rhythm is an incredibly important regulatory system to keep our body functioning optimally. When this rhythm is disrupted there is an increase in stress on the body and increased risk for major health issues. Fortunately, we have a lot of control over this system and can keep it in tip-top shape via our nutrition, lifestyle and light exposure. In a world of technology and screens, we’ve got to make an extra effort to protect this delicate system. I don’t know about you but I’d gladly rock some nerdy orange glasses to be able to watch my favorite show AND not mess up my sleep!