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What Is A Circadian Rhythm? How Does It Affect Sleep?

by | Jul 11, 2022 | Depression

Circadian rhythms are present across many forms of life, and humans are no exception. These rhythms, or cycles, regulate many of the body’s functions, such as our sleep. They are influenced by various factors, which, at times, can result in disruptions and other issues. 

In this post, Select Psychology takes a deep dive into circadian rhythms, answering questions such as what it is, why it’s important and how it affects our sleep. 

What Is A Circadian Rhythm?

Your circadian rhythm is a natural process that occurs each day. For humans, this rhythm takes place over a 24-hour period. It is a part of your internal or biological clock and is responsible for carrying out essential functions and processes in your body. 

One of the most commonly recognised circadian rhythms is our sleep-wake cycle. However, there are many other circadian cycles, such as our hormonal activity, body temperature, digestion and immune function. 

Why Is A Circadian Rhythm Important?

The circadian rhythm is extremely important as it is responsible for carrying out many of the important functions and processes of the body. This biological clock can be influenced by several external stimuli, which will affect the hormones released by the brain. This, in turn, will have an impact on whether your circadian rhythm functions as it should. 

How Does Circadian Rhythm Affect Sleep?

As mentioned above, your body’s circadian rhythm controls your sleep-wake cycle and is influenced by various stimuli. In the sleep-wake cycle, the most important factor that will affect the process is light and darkness. 

During the day, our bodies are exposed to sunlight. This stimulus is received by the brain, which, in turn, signals to the body that we need to stay awake and alert. As it gets darker in the evenings, the body will begin to produce melatonin which helps prepare the body for sleep. Thus, our circadian rhythm helps to keep our bodies aligned with day and night. 

What Happens When Your Circadian Rhythm Is Out?

When the body’s circadian rhythm is not functioning as it should, this can lead to serious issues as the body cannot perform the necessary functions and processes correctly. 

In terms of the sleep-wake pattern, a disturbed circadian rhythm can result in serious sleep issues that may lead to a reduction in the total amount and quality of sleep you get. 

Some common symptoms of circadian rhythm sleep disorders include:

  • Insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or struggling to sleep through the night). 
  • Extreme daytime sleepiness
  • Struggling to wake up in the morning
  • Waking up during the early hours of the morning and not being able to go back to sleep
  • Depression

What Factors Can Affect Your Circadian Rhythm?

There are several stimuli that can and are supposed to aid your circadian rhythm. However, there are some factors that can negatively influence it, causing it to become out of sync, such as:

  • Working overnight shifts that aren’t aligned with natural daylight hours
  • Working shifts with erratic hours
  • Travelling across several time zones 
  • Certain medications 
  • Stress
  • Poor sleep habits
  • A lifestyle characterised by extremely late nights or early mornings
  • Mental health issues
  • Other health conditions such as dementia, blindness, head injuries or brain damage

How To Maintain Your Circadian Rhythm?

While we may not have complete control over our circadian rhythm, there are many strategies you can use to help keep this cycle balanced and in working order, such as:

  • Exposing yourself to natural light in the morning 
  • Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule 
  • Exercising each day
  • Avoiding caffeine and heavy meals, especially from noon onwards
  • Limiting screen time before bed
  • Skip afternoon naps (or only have short naps in the early afternoon)