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Circadian Rhythm: How to Regulate It and Why It's the Key to Good Sleep

Ever wondered how your body's internal clock works?

Woman and dog sleeping peacefully.
Find out how to optimize your circadian rhythm so you can sleep better.
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Whenever you read about tips and tricks that will help you sleep better, you probably scroll through several articles suggesting blue-light-blocking glasses, sleep trackers, tech fasts and sleep supplements. Have you ever wondered why? 

Well, it has to do with your internal clock. Specifically, these products attempt to help you regulate or optimize your circadian rhythm, which can result in a better night's sleep.

Your circadian rhythm is the internal "clock" that helps your body function, adapt and yes -- sleep. The two things that affect your circadian rhythm the most are environment and light, according to Dr. Craig Heller, Professor of Biology at Stanford where his research focuses on sleep and circadian rhythms. And while controlling your environment and light around you seems a bit difficult (read: impossible), there are definitely things you can do to reduce the risk that you are disrupting your circadian rhythm more than necessary.

Keep reading to learn more about your circadian clock, how it works, and what you can do to optimize it so you will sleep better. 

Read also: Best Ways to Stay Cool While You Sleep

So, what is your circadian rhythm?

For those who need a circadian rhythm definition, it's your body's internal clock that runs on a 24-hour cycle. This internal clock tells your body when you feel tired or awake throughout the day. You've probably noticed you have a pattern of when you feel the most awake or energized, and when you usually want to take a nap. The circadian rhythm is what drives that pattern, but not everyone has the same patterns.

Read more: The Best White Noise Machines for Better Sleep   

Alarm clock next to a woman sleeping.

Your body has an "internal clock "system known as the circadian rhythm. 

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"Circadian rhythms are internal cycles in many body systems and behavior that have a periodicity. Circadian systems enable the body to anticipate future events (e.g., food availability), coordinate body functions (e.g., sleep and hormone release), and optimize physiological processes with respect to each other," Heller says. 

Since your circadian clock helps regulate many important processes in your body, it makes sense that disrupting it is bad news for your sleep, and therefore your health in general.

So what exactly disrupts your circadian rhythm the most? "Most commonly jet lag, shift work, bright light and especially blue light (computer and TV screens) when it should be dark," Heller says. Another big circadian rhythm disruption is when you transition to daylight saving time.

What can you do to help regulate your circadian rhythm if it's off?

Signs that your circadian clock is disrupted include problems falling asleep, feeling energized or wired at unusual times, or feeling super tired for periods during the day. One thing that can help keep your circadian rhythm on track is trying to stick to a consistent sleep and wake-up time, which is not always easy. 

Here are a few things to try if you think your circadian rhythm is off:

Keep a consistent sleep and wake up time: and try to keep it close to what feels natural to you (i.e., don't fight the fact that you are a night owl or morning person)

Get light in the morning: Get sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning when you can. Getting light early in the day tells your body it's time to "wake up."

Avoid bright lights in the evening: Like Heller said, light can affect your circadian rhythm, which is why avoiding bright lights in the evening and dimming your lights can make a difference.

Avoid blue light at night: Turn off the TV and other devices that emit blue light at least three hours before bed. If you can't turn them off completely, install an app like F.lux or wear blue light or amber-tinted glasses to block the light.

A man walking through an airport terminal.

Traveling across time zones can disrupt your body's internal clock.

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What to do if you travel across time zones or work night shifts

Sometimes your job or lifestyle forces you to do things you know aren't great for your sleep, but you want to make the best out of your situation regardless. Activities like working nights or traveling across time zones -- especially when the time difference is more than a few hours -- can really wreak havoc on your sleep. 

"Presumably, you can't avoid travel across time zones or shift work, so you can learn the best ways to retrain rhythms by appropriate timing of light exposure and practice of good sleep hygiene," Heller says. "Apart from circadian considerations, there are many other things to do to improve sleep, most effectively through thermoregulation to support the temperature fluctuations of the body to maintain sleep continuity."

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.