Our ancestors woke as the sun emerged on the horizon and birdsong greeted the day, and retired to shelter as dusk changed the sky from blue to grey, sleeping as darkness fell. They lived in sync with their circadian rhythm, which oversees the wake/rest/sleep cycle, along with other bodily functions.

Today, the sun, stars and moon have given way to long work hours, at-home childcare and Netflix binges. Especially in the last year, when boundaries between jobs, parenting and personal time have blurred to the point of indistinction, our circadian rhythm—the internal clock that regulates our sleep-wake cycle—can be ticking away to an unnatural beat, leading to sleep problems and health challenges.

Hormonal changes can alter our sleep/wake cycles and, therefore, our circadian rhythms, and many people are experiencing sleep disruption due to the pandemic, said occupational therapist Brittany Ferri, PhD, OTR/L, CPRP.

Hormonal levels—including melatonin, serotonin and dopamine—can also further be thrown off by pandemic-related issues such as isolation, less time outside, poor work-life balance, increased stress, unhealthy diet and lack of ergonomic working conditions, she said.

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

All living creatures possess a circadian rhythm, also sometimes called biological timing or the body clock, set to 24-hour changes in biological processes at the molecular, cellular and behavioral levels. It’s what allows us to adapt to changes in our environment, including cycles of night and day.

An easy way to understand circadian rhythm disturbance is to think back to the last time you were jet-lagged. Your body releases melatonin, the key sleep hormone, according to a learned schedule—even though you’re now in a different time zone. The result? Difficulty getting to sleep or waking up at your usual time.

However, the circadian rhythm does much more than just regulate the time we are awake and asleep, according to naturopathic doctor Leigha Saunders, ND. Our circadian rhythm is involved with melatonin, the hormone that helps initiate and maintain our ability to sleep, but it also oversees and regulates other bodily functions, like appetite, meal timing and digestion, as well as the release of cortisol (our main stress hormone), insulin (the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar) and even our sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone and DHEA. “It also plays a role in when we feel most productive and when we feel a natural inclination to exercise,” Saunders said.

A disruption to the circadian rhythm can throw off our sleeping, waking and digestive systems, and can also lead to an increased risk of mental and physical health issues such as depression, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and depression, said Kent Smith, D-ABDSM, ASBA, president of the American Sleep and Breathing Academy. Smith outlined some of the specific problems that can occur with the circadian rhythm is disrupted:

Delayed sleep phase disorder: When you wake up and go to sleep more than two hours later than what is considered a normal sleep cycle. 

Advanced sleep phase disorder: Similar to delayed sleep phase disorder, except you wake up and go to bed earlier than a typical sleep cycle.

Jet lag: When your body’s internal clock has been disturbed from long air travel time to a destination that is two or more time zones different from your home. This can lead to overall tiredness, a change in appetite, change in stomach and bowel function and mood disturbance. 

Shift work disorder: A constant or recurrent pattern of sleep interruption that results in excessive sleepiness or insomnia. This may occur if you frequently rotate shifts or work at night, as these schedules conflict with your body’s natural circadian rhythm, making it difficult to adjust to the change. This can lead to constant tiredness, mood disorders, decreased sex drive and gastrointestinal issues, as well as an increased risk of weight gain, heart disease, breast and endometrial cancer, high blood pressure and alcohol and substance abuse. 

Irregular sleep-wake rhythm: This occurs when you have an undefined sleep-wake cycle. Symptoms may include excessive sleepiness, insomnia or both. 

Non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome: When the actual sleep-wake cycle changes every day, with the time being delayed one to two hours each day.

Reset Your Body Clock

Whether your sleep patterns are far out of whack or you’d like to simply sleep more soundly and on a regular cycle, there are simple steps you can take to re-sync your circadian rhythm. Ferri, Saunders and Smith offer the following advice:
• Wake at the same time each day and go to sleep at the same time each night.

• Stop eating at least four to five hours before bed.

• Take a short walk or engage in other gentle exercise after having a light dinner.

• Keep your bedroom slightly cool, as this will help you slowly drift to sleep since your body won’t need to work harder to cool itself down.

• Drink some chamomile tea—or any herbal, caffeine-free tea—before bed.

• Use calming essential oils such as lavender or eucalyptus before bed.

• Take deep breaths to calm the central nervous system.

• Listen to a meditation CD or stream gentle music to relax to.

• Take a melatonin supplement if you have trouble getting to sleep.

• Use bright-light therapy, or exposure to artificial light, during daytime hours.

• If you identify as a night owl, you can work toward this by changing your wake-up time in the morning gradually.

• See a board-certified sleep specialist for an evaluation and behavioral assessment. Once a sleep specialist identifies the mix of behavioral, cognitive and physiological factors involved in your specific sleep disorder, it is possible to develop an individualized treatment plan.

• Shut off all screens at least 90 minutes before going to sleep.

The Bane of Blue Light

For today’s humans, a prime source of circadian rhythm disruption, and one that deserves focused attention, is blue light, or blue wavelengths—which emanates from the screens of our computers, pads and smartphones.

Many of us are very attached to our digital devices—especially as less time outside the home has led to more time on social media, texting, online gaming and Zoom classes and meetings (one study, for example, showed people are spending 35% more time on social media now than they were pre-pandemic)—but hunkering down with Hulu after the kids are asleep or smartphone-scrolling in bed doses us with blue light that can disrupt our rest.

Harvard researchers compared the effects of six-and-a-half hours of exposure to blue light to exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (three hours versus one-and-a-half hours).

Saunders has even coined the term “light lag” to refer to the effect of blue light on melatonin levels. “Blue light emitted from screens, devices and LED light bulbs sends the same signal to our pineal gland that it’s still daytime,” she said, and studies have shown that just 30 minutes of screen time before bed can suppress melatonin up to 50%.

“Limiting technology and blue light exposure in the one to two hours before bed can significantly increase your production of melatonin and ability to sleep deep,” she added.

And, like our ancestors, you should expose yourself to a lot of bright light during daytime hours, to boost your ability to sleep at night as well as your daytime mood and alertness.

About the Author:

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief-print and digital. She has edited or reported for Imagine Magazine, the Sacramento Bee and Mid-County Post newspapers and more. Her recent articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “Connect with the Benefits of Nature for Self-Care,” “A Timeline of Massage Events that Shaped the Field, 1985–2020” and “A Move to Transcend State Boundaries: Interstate Compact for Massage Therapists Now Underway.”