Sleep is one of the most underrated lifestyle factors when it comes to maintaining our health and healing from chronic illness. A good night’s sleep can reduce inflammation, improve our metabolism, stabilize hormones and can even help with blood pressure (1). Our sleep cycle is regulated by an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm. When our circadian rhythm is out of sync with the rest of our body and the environment, it can be harmful to our health. And guess what? Your diet and daily sleep schedule can help keep this cycle in balance.
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What is the circadian rhythm?
The circadian rhythm is like a master clock that synchronizes our body with the environment over a 24 hour period. This feedback loop is created in the hypothalamus in your brain, which is the main control center for many essential bodily functions. Your circadian rhythm looks for cues from both the internal and external environment to help regulate the cycle.
For instance, daylight and nighttime (external cues) help regulate the hormones related to sleeping. Eating and fasting also help the circadian rhythm sync to all of your organs and their own cycles of work and rest. For your circadian rhythm to function properly, all of your body cycles must be in sync with one another as well as the external world (1,2,3,4).
How can sleep affect the circadian rhythm?
Maintaining a regular sleep cycle can help keep your circadian rhythm in balance. One of the ways it does this is to help regulate hormones related to sleep. As the sun sets and darkness approaches, this signals your pineal gland to produce melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that makes you feel sleepy, and this hormone helps prepare your body for rest. As the sun starts to rise, daylight signals your body to start waking up. Cortisol is released and your digestive system is stimulated to prepare for your first meal (5,6).
Now, many of us go to bed much later than the first sign of darkness, and depending on the time of year, we likely get up when it is still dark out. There are several things you can do to protect that melatonin and cortisol production, which I will discuss in a minute. But it is important to note that maintaining a regular bedtime and awake time can help regulate your circadian rhythm.
What can throw my circadian rhythm off?
There are many factors that can throw your circadian rhythm off balance. Let’s break these down one by one, starting with:
Inflammation can be a major factor in dismantling your circadian rhythm, and having an unbalanced circadian rhythm can also increase pro-inflammatory activity in your body. Additionally, a lower production of melatonin can also increase inflammatory cytokine, leading to more inflammation and a further shift in your circadian rhythm. So inflammation can be a vicious cycle for throwing off this natural rhythm (3).
Caffeine is known to disrupt sleep and can make it difficult to fall asleep. However, research is mixed on the timing of caffeine and when you should or should not drink it (2).
First and second hand smoke has been shown to affect the circadian rhythm and overall sleep quality (2).
Screen time and bright lights
Bright lights, either from artificial light inside your home or from a screen reduces melatonin production. Additionally, watching violent television or video games before bedtime increases our stress response and can disrupt sleep (2).
Meal composition and timing
Eating too late at night can affect both circadian rhythm and increase inflammatory markers (3). Also, low carbohydrate diets may help rebalance your circadian rhythm. One small study looked at morning cortisol levels following either a high carbohydrate or low carbohydrate diet. Researchers found that following a low carbohydrate diet raised cortisol levels in the morning, which is a sign of a balanced circadian rhythm (6). Another larger study assessed overweight and obese women following a low carbohydrate diet. This study found that closer adherence to the low carbohydrate diet was associated with less circadian rhythm disturbance (3).
What can I do to get my rhythm into better sync with my body?
There are a handful of tricks to get your circadian rhythm back into balance.
- Try to go to bed and wake up within the same 1 hour window every day, including weekends. This will help establish a regular cycle that works for you.
- Try to mimic the natural cycle of light as best as you can. This means, when the sun goes down, turn down the lights in your home. Artificial light can suppress your melatonin production. Upon waking, try to get outside and expose yourself to natural light as soon as possible. One way to “cheat” is to spend time on your phone or computer when you first wake up.
- Wear blue light blocking glasses like these 1-2 hours before bedtime. This will help maintain your natural melatonin production while being exposed to lights and screens at night.
- Take a caffeine vacation. See if it makes a difference in your sleep quality.
- Invest in a sleep tracker like an oura ring or whoop band. Both of these devices can help you understand your sleep cycle.
- If you have trouble falling asleep, consider a melatonin supplement. You can access my favorites here.
Keep in mind that sleep is one of the many ways you can start healing from your autoimmune or inflammatory disease. If you need more guidance as to how sleep and other changes can help you, contact me to learn more.