Anyone who’s ever gone on a long-distance trip has experienced “jet lag.” You wake up at 4 in the morning because your brain thinks it’s 7, and you end up first in line at the hotel Starbucks, waiting to get your coffee. And boy, do you need it!
Jet lag is simply a disruption in your circadian rhythm. And those disruptions can have significant effects on both your physical and mental health.
Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle. They’re found in most living things. And at the most basic level, they tell you when to go to sleep and when to wake up in the morning, based on the changes in light around you. When you feel yourself getting sleepy as it’s getting darker outside, that’s your circadian rhythm at work.
These rhythms can influence everything from your natural sleep/wake cycles to natural hormone release, body temperature changes, and even your eating habits and digestion.
When they’re off track, they can be quite impactful. Irregular circadian rhythms have been linked to a variety of chronic health conditions, such as sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder.
Here are some of the most common ways your circadian rhythms can fall out of sync:
Exposure to artificial light at night. This can be the light radiating from your phone screen as you send late night emails. This can also be artificial ambient light throughout your environment, common in large cities that never sleep.
Night shift work. While obviously for some this lifestyle cannot be avoided, night shift work can seriously disrupt your circadian rhythm. One study showed that men who worked night shifts for four years or more were more likely to have anxiety and depressionthan those who work during the daytime.
Drinking caffeine in the evening. People given a dose of caffeine a few hours before their normal bedtimes exhibited a delay in their circadian rhythms of more than half an hour.
Eating late at night. At night, the lack of sunlight prompts the brain to release melatonin, which prepares us for sleep. Eating late in the evening sends a conflicting signal to the clocks in the rest of the body that it’s still daytime.
Once you’ve identified where you may be falling short, how do you make sure to better tune into your natural rhythms of sleep and activity? Explore strategies called timed light exposure and timed meals, which encourage you to structure your days based on your natural circadian rhythms.
The science is simple and centers around this basic principle: The one thing humans have been able to rely on every day for thousands of years is the sun will rise and set. And in every 24-hour period, your body has to sleep each night to restore and repair. While the lifestyle changes may seem slight, keeping your schedule consistent and listening to your body’s natural tendencies can go a long way to improving overall health and wellness.