With blue light coming at us from every direction and schedules that leave us fighting social jetlag, 21st-century life isn't exactly symbiotic with getting a quality night's sleep. And as much as we've floated the idea of relocating to an off-the-grid cabin where we wake and sleep with the rising of the sun, it's not exactly a viable solution to our very modern problem.
But with all this talk about how modern life is messing with our natural sleep rhythms — aka, our internal circadian clock — is it actually possible to adapt, or even hack, our circadian rhythms to ultimately achieve better sleep and long-tern wellness?
To find out if circadian rhythm hacking is a legitimate thing, we spoke with Professor, Marc Cohen, an expert on all things sleep, to get his opinion on why our natural circadian sleep rhythms are so important and find out what damage we might be doing as a consequence for existing outside of these natural rhythms.
Below, Professor Marc, gives us a 411 in everything circadian rhythms and shares his top tips for re-balancing ("hacking") our sleep, so we can ultimately be our best selves — night owl, or early bird — there's no judgement here.
What is the circadian sleep rhythm?
You rarely think about it, but every second of every day your body functions according to its own unique timetable. At certain moments your hormones will fire, your energy levels may surge or plummet, hunger can kick in or subside and your body could either wake up or close up shop for the day. All of this happens thanks to your circadian rhythm, which is carefully set by your internal 'master clock' — a small group of nerve cells — the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), found in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus that is responsible for the synchronisation of these body's essential process. Most cells have their own little clock that ticks away, but without the 'master clock' on track, they can lose synchronicity and potentially cause knock-on health effects.
Why is the circadian sleep rhythm important and why is modern life bad match?
Circadian rhythms vary from person-to-person, meaning those who claim to be night owls and like to sleep in, aren't just lazy, but may actually be subject to a different circadian rhythm then those who rise early. These differences are referred to as chronotypes. No matter what your chronotype, however, everyone is susceptible to his or her natural rhythm being thrown off. Think shift work, travelling, going out late, or staying up all night with an upset baby.
Caffeine overuse, work stress, busy social and family lives, a tendency to overdose on late-night TV and blue-lit screens . . . Let's face it, the chances of most of us getting a good night's sleep against that backdrop are pretty slim.
How does your circadian sleep rhythm impact your general health and wellness?
Studies show one in three struggle with sleep, which may have ramifications for our ability to function effectively the next day and the potential for knock-on effects in the quality of our lives and our relationships. Adequate, good quality sleep is an important pillar of overall health, with links between sleeplessness and taking more sick days and reduced motivation to eat well or exercise just some of the many effect's researchers have found.
What are your top tips for helping to rebalance your circadian rhythm?
Know your chronotype: If you're naturally a night owl, your circadian rhythm shifts toward more wakefulness and productivity at night. Morning people generally have better productivity in the morning when they feel more awake.
Pay attention to lighting: Try to get plenty of natural light within two hours of waking and keep yourself exposed to natural light throughout the day. At night, decrease the amount of light you expose yourself to, so your body can naturally release the hormone melatonin, which promotes sleep. Most importantly, avoid night time exposure to blue light from digital screens, as this can promote wakefulness.
Reach for a tried and tested sleep aid: A herbal extract known as Ze 91019 can help reset the sleep cycle. It has been clinically shown to help restore and re-establish healthy sleep patterns within two weeks as well as increase the time spent in the deeper, restorative stages of the sleep cycle.
Practice good sleep hygiene: Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends. This is the very best way to re-set your clock, even if you did not sleep well the night before. Create a routine to relax yourself before bed, for example, take a warm bath or read a book.