Your Circadian Rhythm Could Explain Your Poor Mental Health. What to Know

If your mental health has been declining, your sleep-wake cycle may be to blame, according to a new review of literature.

Taylor Leamey Senior Writer
Taylor Leamey writes about all things wellness, specializing in mental health, sleep and nutrition coverage. She has invested hundreds of hours into studying and researching sleep and holds a Certified Sleep Science Coach certification from the Spencer Institute. Not to mention the years she spent studying mental health fundamentals while earning her bachelor's degrees in both Psychology and Sociology. She is also a Certified Stress Management Coach.
Expertise Bachelor of Science, Psychology and Sociology Credentials
  • Certified Sleep Science Coach, Certified Stress Management Coach
Taylor Leamey
6 min read
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There's a lot of research into sleep disturbances and mental health. I've written several stories that explore the topics over the years. But there's less research around the extent to which your circadian rhythm -- which regulates your sleep -- affects your mental health. 

A new review published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that examining the relationship between circadian disturbances and mental health can open up holistic treatment options that benefit each.  

Let's dig into the circadian rhythm, why disruptions can exacerbate mental health conditions and what to do about it. 

Read more: Best Mattresses for Optimal Sleep

What is circadian rhythm? 

The circadian rhythm is our body's internal clock that starts and stops several bodily functions like body temperature, appetite and sleep. Your circadian rhythm is naturally aligned with the sun, so you get tired as the sun goes down and alert with exposure to light. It does this thanks to the hormone melatonin, which tells our internal clock when it's time to sleep. 

Pretty simple, right? If only. There's a lot of room for this natural process to go wrong. 

Electricity blurred the lines between night and day, allowing people to stay up later than usual. Thanks, Thomas Edison. Advancements in technology continued to introduce new sleep problems for us, like shift work disorder, which is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder marked by insomnia and depression

"This rhythm is directed by sunlight and cortisol, our stress hormone. Disruptions in our rhythm can throw off our sleep cycle and our ability to regulate our mood,"  said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, who holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology. Harkavy-Friedman is the senior vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

"Our natural hormonal cycle is working overtime when our schedule is changed or thrown off by things like changes in time zones or daylight savings," Harkavy-Friedman adds.

Circadian rhythm disorders occur when your body's internal clock no longer matches your environment. They're also referred to as sleep-wake cycle disorders. Examples include jet lag disorder and delayed sleep-wake phase disorder

Woman sitting on the edge of her bed
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How can circadian rhythm affect your mental health?

There are plenty of studies examining how sleep influences mental wellness. We know that those with mental health conditions are more likely to experience insomnia than the general population. We also know that people can get trapped in a cycle of compromised sleep and low mental health.

However, there is limited research into how disruptions in your circadian rhythm can worsen mental health conditions. However, the bidirectional relationship between circadian rhythm and mood disorders is well-recognized. So much so that impaired sleep patterns are a necessary symptom to receive a mood disorder diagnosis like major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. 

"Some people are more sensitive to changes than others. People with mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder can get thrown off by even small changes in daily rhythm," Harkavy-Friedman said. "It is thought that they often already have cortisol systems that are functioning atypically, which explains why these mental health conditions often involve changes in sleep and energy. 

Mood disorders are associated with disrupted circadian responses like cortisol secretion. The studies available have found that 32% of people with bipolar disorder also have delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, meaning they go to sleep and wake up later than average. During manic phases, the body clock processes can be 7 hours ahead of average and around 4 hours behind in depressive phases. 

According to the review, disrupted circadian rhythms are often reported among people with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia. 

4 ways to regulate your circadian rhythm right now

The review has a call to action for preventative and therapeutic treatment options that account for the connection between mental health and circadian rhythm disruptions. However, who knows how far off that is. Thankfully, you can do things right now to benefit your sleep-wake cycle and mental wellness.

Optimize light exposure 

It seems too simple to work, but increasing sun exposure will significantly impact your sleep quality. Getting sunlight in the morning will suppress melatonin production, which will help you feel more alert. You can shift your circadian rhythm by getting sunlight in the morning. 

Sunlight can also boost your mental health by boosting the body's serotonin production. According to Harvard Health Publishing, serotonin is the neurotransmitter that regulates mood. It's known as the "feel-good" chemical because normal serotonin levels result in feelings of happiness or calmness. Low serotonin levels are associated with mood disorders like depression.

Read more: I Started Getting Morning Sunlight to Improve My Sleep. Here's Why You Should Too 

Maximizing your light exposure can be challenging, especially if you work irregular hours. Thankfully, products like sunrise alarm clocks can help gradually reset your circadian rhythm with light, no matter your lifestyle. Or you can look into using artificial lighting for light therapy to alleviate symptoms. 

Man sitting in the sun on his porch while drinking coffee
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Create a routine and stick with it

Harkavy-Friedman stressed the importance of a routine for maintaining a normal circadian rhythm. "It's important to respect your daily rhythm and develop a routine that is predictable for your body. Having an established bedtime and set of steps to prepare for sleep is important."

Your sleep routine sets the tone for the quality of sleep you'll get and determines if you consistently sleep well. 

Here are a few other tips to maximize your sleep routine:

  • Aim for 8 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Yes, that includes weekends. 
  • Make sure your bedroom is at the optimal temperature. Experts recommend between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Avoid screens in bed to minimize blue light exposure.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia 

Cognitive behavioral therapy is built on the concept that everything you feel, think and how you act are dependent on each other. When one is distorted, the others will be too. It's the gold standard for psychotherapy to treat mental health conditions like depression and anxiety

CBT is also effective at treating insomnia by helping you identify what thoughts or behaviors are standing in the way of quality sleep. CBT for insomnia may include changing your routine, using relaxation techniques and improving your sleep hygiene

Be intentional about timing

Everything we do has an impact on our body and the way it functions. Being intentional about timing your food, medication and exercise can help you polish your sleep schedule and boost your mental health. 

Be mindful of the timing and the food choices you make before bed. Some things, like fried or spicy food, can keep you from sleeping because they trigger acid reflux or discomfort. Caffeine and alcohol can also sabotage your sleep. It's best to avoid caffeine past the early afternoon and skip the nightcap. 

Exercise is recommended for almost every alignment; poor sleep and mental health are no different. Regular exercise can improve your mood, lower anxiety and make it easier to fall asleep at night. But timing matters. It's best to avoid vigorous activity right before bed. If exercise is part of your nightly routine, stick to movements like yoga

Don't rely on medication

Supplements like melatonin have been found to help sleep if you have a delayed sleep-wake phase disorder. If your doctor recommends melatonin supplements to ease sleep disturbances, it's best to take them 30 minutes to an hour before bed

Melatonin is a short-term solution for sleep problems. It does not help the underlying cause of your sleep problems.

Too long; didn't read? 

"Sleep affects mental health" is a widely accepted, though broad, statement. One bad night of sleep likely won't have a lasting impact on your mental health. The issue goes deeper than just sleeping poorly; it's about how your body regulates sleep. More research is needed to fully understand the connection between the sleep-wake cycle and its effects on mental wellness. But making an effort to improve a disrupted circadian rhythm has no downsides. 

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.