Although you can’t see it and you won’t hear it tick, your body has its own clock. 

This internal clock controls the natural cycle of physical, mental, and behavioral changes that the body goes through in a 24-hour cycle. And it’s essential for your overall health and well-being. 

So what is this clock?

It’s your circadian rhythm!

What are your circadian rhythms?

Your circadian rhythm is a body clock that helps organize biological processes over the course of 24 hours. 

Most commonly associated with your sleep and wake cycles, your circadian rhythm can also trigger essential metabolic activities like storing energy, getting rid of the body’s waste, releasing hormones, and transporting oxygen.

How do circadian rhythms work?

Many of our bodily functions operate on a circadian rhythm that helps them regulate their actions’ timing. For example, the circadian rhythm signals the digestive system to produce proteins during meals to break down our food and the endocrine system to regulate hormones based on our energy expenditure.

The circadian rhythms throughout the body are connected to a master clock located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the brain’s hypothalamus. The SCN is highly sensitive to light signals from the eye’s retina and notifies various parts of the brain of these external clues. It is because of this light sensitivity that our circadian rhythms are so closely connected to day and night. Although other factors such as exercise, medication, and hormones can affect the SCN.

Importance of your Circadian Rhythm

Your sleep-wake cycle may be the most well-known circadian rhythm. Still, nearly everything about how our body works is connected to a circadian rhythm. 

In addition to our sleep-wake cycle, our circadian rhythms can influence

  • Hunger and digestion
  • Metabolism and weight by regulating blood sugar
  • Cholesterol
  • Mental health
  • Immune response
  • Disease progression and severity

What can cause your circadian rhythm to change?

Disruptions to your circadian rhythm can occur over short or long periods, and even small changes can impact you. Your circadian rhythm can change because of:

Poor sleep habits. Regularly changing your sleep schedule, eating or drinking late at night, or not having a comfortable sleeping space can all lead to poor sleep habits. Ideally, you go to sleep and wake up within 30 minutes of the same time each day.

Jet lag. When you travel across multiple time zones, your body is attuned to your original location and can take several days to adjust, resulting in feelings of tiredness or sluggishness during the day and being wide awake at night. 

Shift work. Changes in work schedules can cause significant disruptions to your circadian rhythm. Working through the night and sleeping during the day or rotating between working days or nights can put your sleep schedule at odds with the daylight hours. 

Stress. The body’s stress response varies throughout the day. Still, no matter the type, severity, or timing of the stressor, it impacts the body’s physiological response, influencing the circadian rhythm.

Medications. Various medications can directly affect your circadian rhythms, causing the body to respond to medications differently depending on when you take them. Some medicines may only cause short-term circadian rhythm changes, while others can cause lasting changes.

Blindness. Many blind people with no perception of light experience regular changes to their circadian rhythm because they do not receive the light input that the SCN requires to regulate various body systems.

Health conditions. Circadian dysfunction is common in people with health conditions such as dementia, head injuries, or brain damage. These conditions may impact the brain’s ability to produce chemicals required to regulate the circadian rhythm. 

How can circadian rhythm changes affect your health?

Extensive research indicates that maintaining your circadian rhythm is vital to your health, and disruptions to your circadian rhythm can have short- and long-term effects on your health.

Short-term changes to your circadian rhythm can result in

  • Changes in body temperature
  • Digestive upset and bowel issues
  • A lack of energy
  • Feeling brain fog or memory issues

Long-term changes to your circadian rhythm can result in

  • Development or progression of heart disease and some cancers.
  • A susceptibility to obesity and diabetes.
  • Increased chances for developing a mental health condition.
  • Disruption in regular hormone cycles. 
  • Changes to skin’s tone and texture.

Skin and Circadian Rhythm

I would be remiss if I didn’t specifically call out the impact that your circadian rhythm has on your skin. In fact, the cells in our skin have their own circadian rhythm that responds to the rhythm of day and night. 

Our skin’s circadian rhythm, or our skin’s clock, can influence cell proliferation, wound healing, and repair damage from UV radiation and oxidative stress. 

Read more about optimizing your skincare routine by tapping into your skin’s circadian rhythm. 

Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Circadian Rhythm

Studies have shown possible connections between healthy circadian rhythms and cardiovascular health, cognition, weight control, immune function, digestion, and more. So even though we don’t have complete control over our circadian rhythm, there are tips you can take to maintain and improve your healthy sleep cycles.

Follow a consistent sleep schedule. Try going to bed and waking up within 30 minutes of the same time each day. Yes, even on weekends. 

Seek sunlight in the morning. Sunlight first thing in the morning triggers the brain to decrease your melatonin production and reset your clock for the day.

Exercise regularly. Try to get your body moving and break a sweat every day. Not only does that help with natural detoxification, but it helps regulate your rhythm and get you to sleep at night.

Limit caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant that can trigger your brain to keep you active. Try limiting caffeine throughout the day and stopping it at least six hours before bed.

Skip the afternoon nap. As tempting as a nap might be, avoiding afternoon naps can help ensure you fall asleep during prime sleeping hours.

Decrease light exposure before bed. Light exposure at night can trick the brain into thinking it’s still daytime. Limit light exposure from household lights and devices like cell phones, tablets, and TVs before bed. 

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