wellness — By sleep expert chris winter, md
Most people do not find it remarkable that most days around noon we start looking around for a little something to eat. Similarly, the fact that we tend to perform better doing a 5K run at 3:00 pm rather than 3:00 am does not tend to raise many eyebrows. What’s so special about noon when it comes to looking for a California roll or 3:00 pm when it comes to lacing up our running shoes?
The answer relates directly to our circadian rhythm, our body’s internal time keeper. Circadian rhythms are found in a vast array of living creatures, and they are not new. Androsthenes, a Greek sailor described the circadian rhythm of tamarind tree leaves around the 4th century BC. These rhythms work to keep our bodies on a constant schedule consistent with the day/night cycle as the word circadian (“circa” + “dien”) suggests, meaning “about a day.”
When we think about circadian rhythms in humans, most people jump right to thoughts about sleep because falling asleep in the night and awakening during the day is a very observable manifestation of our circadian rhythm. Every night I watch my wife nod off during The Great British Bake Off. Every morning, she watches me gently weep when my alarm goes off in the morning. Day after day after day.
It’s a mistake to think that our circadian rhythm just controls falling asleep and waking up. This outward expression is the tip of the iceberg. Think of the circadian rhythm as controlling virtually everything our bodies do. Imagine taking a tour of SpaceX. It would be surprising to walk inside mission control only to find nothing but a massive red button that said “Launch.” Sure, the launching part is what we all see outwardly when a rocket takes off, but the engineers are controlling countless other variables behind the scenes. So too is your circadian rhythm.
There is nothing that happens in our bodies accidentally. Our brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus (the mission control of the circadian rhythm) controls everything: hormone release, digestive enzyme production, mood enhancing chemicals, nasal passage congestion, metabolism, cognitive and athletic ability, red blood cell production, body temperature, hunger…everything is under close control.
So how does it all work? How do our brains know when it’s time to eat, or release some insulin, or drop our body temperature, or run a great 5K? It’s all about your body’s ability to collect data about where you are in terms of a 24-hour day. Is it early morning, mid-afternoon, or late night? Unfortunately, looking at your watch is not good enough. Our brains need specific time cues to properly calibrate our circadian rhythm. These time cues are light, temperature, exercise, social interaction, food, and sleep/rest.
To illustrate this, think about camping. What cues are present to let our brains know it’s getting close to time to retire to our tents?
Light: The sun goes down and our environment gets darker
Temperature: The environmental temperature begins to drop
Exercise: After a day spent hiking, kayaking, or biking, we end the day relaxed around a campfire.
Social Interaction: Conversation is starting to die down as people prepare for bed.
Food: Our dinner of fresh caught trout, fire-baked potatoes and s'mores is slowly digesting.
Sleep Rest: Around 10:00 pm, we climb into our sleeping bags under the stars
These cues are very integral to establishing our brain’s rhythm. When we awaken in the morning, and we go back to a bright environment in which we are moving our bodies and eating some breakfast, these cues further reinforce our body’s circadian rhythm and timing.
When things work well, this all has the effect of making not only sleep more consistent and healthier, but virtually everything we do more consistent and healthier. Conversely, when our schedule breaks down and we eat at unpredictable times during the day, or we don’t stick to a good sleep schedule, things break down quickly, often because our brain is not really sure when something should be happening. And when timing starts to break down, it can spiral out of control in a hurry.
For this reason, we need to create and maintain not only consistent sleep and wake schedules, but ideally a consistent 24-hour schedule. While going to bed and waking up at the same time is great, don’t stop there. Consistent meal times, exercise time, social interaction times, etc. all feed valuable input to our brains and help us to sleep better.
To set yourself up for success, follow these tips to create and elite sleep schedule:
Focus less on the bedtime… : Don’t view your bedtime as some hard and fast “Lights Out” notice. Instead, think of it as the earliest you are allowed to got to bed. When your bedtime rolls around, go to sleep if you are sleepy. If you struggle to fall asleep, just stay up until you are ready to fall asleep. Enjoy the extra time. It’s okay…your brain knows what it’s doing.
…and focus more on the wake time: Here’s the fun part. No matter how well or poorly you slept, work hard to keep that wake time consistent. This has been much harder for many people during this time period of social isolation and working/going to school from home. As mentioned above, make the 20 minutes after awakening a time of bright light, body movement/exercise, warmth, food, and social interaction. Let your brain know that regardless of how the nights in the future go, this will be revelry.
Eat meals at consistent times: Don’t just snack when you can fit it in. Try to create a scheduled breakfast, lunch and dinner. If a meal comes around and you are not that hungry, eat a bar or a handful of nuts. Let your brain know that even though you are not going to eat a full meal, this is the time you would typically be doing it.
Exercise on a schedule, ideally when you first wake up: Without a doubt, morning exercise is one of the best activities for good health and enviable sleep. Remember, you don’t have to light the world on fire…20 minutes on a treadmill will do the trick.
If you are going to nap, nap on a schedule: Napping is not the best strategy for individuals who struggle to sleep (like snacking is not great for someone who is never hungry for dinner). However, if you want to nap, nap on a schedule and keep the opportunity limited to about 20-25 minutes. Remember, you don’t have to sleep to have a refreshing nap.
Remain in light: Seek light during the day to really let your brain know it’s time to be awake and productive. As light begins to decline outside, mirror that slow loss of light inside with dimmer switches or by simply turning unnecessary lights off.
Keep these tips for constructing a fantastic sleep schedule in mind. Understand that the work you put into creating a sound routine will not only help your brain get the message as to when it should shut things down, but it will also help the timing of countless other body processes leading to greater wellness and performance during the day.
Dr. Chris Winter is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist. In addition to helping numerous adults and children with their sleep problems, he is an advisor to many professional sports organizations including the 2020 World Series Champions the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is the author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It as well as the upcoming book The Rested Child: Why Your Tired, Wired, or Irritable Child May Have a Sleep Disorder—And How To Help.