Circadian Rhythms & Your Sleep
The Empowered Health Team

Circadian Rhythms

How is it possible that your body can wake you up before your usual alarm goes off? And why do you get sleepy as soon as the sun sets? Even if at that same time during the summer you’re totally awake? Amazingly, our body has a natural sense of timekeeping called the circadian system. This system not only influences sleep and wakefulness, but can even influence appetite and body temperature.

So how does your body do this? It takes cues from the best time keeper of all: The sun!


The circadian system is heavily dependent on bright light for waking and sleep cues. This is why when the sun sets, you may feel sleepy no matter the time, as your body’s circadian cycle prepares you for bed.


This sensitivity to bright light is why some doctors suggest not using your phone before bed time. The bright blue light of your phone and other electronic screens have been found to disrupt our body’s natural circadian cycle and therefore can cause sleep issues.


Additionally, many researchers hypothesize that the circadian system may be the key cause of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In fact, some have suggested that SAD in humans may be analogous to the hibernation response found in other mammals. In both humans and mammals, the circadian cycle controls the secretion of melatonin during non-light hours.


For many humans, the secretion of this hormone is the same in both winter and summer – despite the difference in daylight hours. For some with SAD, however, the secretion of melatonin overproduces throughout the long winter nights. This surplus of melatonin can trigger depressive symptoms, which may explain the pathology behind some cases SAD.


In other SAD cases, it would seem that the misalignment of the circadian cycle and one’s actual sleep cycle is to blame. With the later rising of the sun and fewer daylight hours of winter, it is easy for the circadian cycle to become out of sync with one’s typical sleep schedule.


During these months individuals may go to bed later and get up earlier than the body expects. It’s unclear how exactly this misalignment leads to SAD, but the link has been established for both those with seasonal depression and other types of depression.


So what does this all mean for you and your sleep?


First of all, if you find yourself suffering from SAD, or have found issues with your sleep cycle, talk with your doctor about what can be done to reset your circadian cycle. This may include taking specifically timed dosages of melatonin supplements, using artificial bright lights, or creating complete darkness for sleeping in order to realign your circadian system.


For those without SAD, learning about what controls the circadian system and how to keep it in check is vital to preventing SAD and sleep based disorders. We recommend:


  • Using blue light filters on electronics
  • Listening to the body’s natural cues
  • Only using melatonin if recommended by your health care provider


Don’t let winter hibernation slow you down. Find the root issue to your problems through Empowered Health.

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