Is listening to our internal body clock the key to getting a better night's sleep?
When it comes to getting a good night sleep, most of us are guilty of flouting the rules. Staying up for just-one-more-episode, chugging the caffeine post 4pm and scrolling Insta pre lights out.
Most of the time we do these things, despite the bad sleep consequences, because our snooze time has to fit in around our busy, everyday lives.
But what if we’ve been doing it all wrong?
Squeezing in our shut-eye at the end of the day, waking with an alarm twenty minutes before we start work and not paying nearly enough attention to our circadian rhythm?
“On average, a person’s circadian rhythm – colloquially the “internal body clock” – naturally rises and falls in energy within a 24 hour period,” explains Dr Audrey Tang, chartered psychologist and author of The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness.
“However this responds very well to light – especially natural light. If it is dark then our brain signals to release melatonin which makes us sleepy.
“When there is light – especially natural light – the melatonin stops. This means that if you wake with natural daylight outside, it can be difficult to return to sleep because your internal processes are already signalling that it is time to rise.”
Put simply, your body naturally wants to be asleep when it’s dark and awake when it’s light.
Dr Tang cites an experiment back in 1975 when psychologist, Siffre,isolated himself in a cave experiencing no natural light.
“He found that his natural sleep-wake cycle to be around 24-25 hours. Since then research has been conducted on participants who experience a similar deprivation of environmental cues and findings suggest that their natural circadian rhythm lengthened to having approximately 28 hours in a day (Purves et al, 2001).
“However, they also noted that when the participants were returned to “normal” environmental cues, they soon found their 24 hour cycle restored.”
So should we all be waking up with the dawn and going to bed when it’s dark to match our natural circadian rhythm?
In theory, we possibly should, because paying attention to the body's natural rhythms is more important to our health, both physical and mental, than we probably realise.
In fact a growing body of research is examining the adverse health effects of a disrupted circadian rhythm, like increasing the chances of cardiovascular problems, obesity and depression.
The problem is that real life gets in the way. Sure it might be better for us to go to bed when the sun goes down, but what about in the winter when it gets dark at 4.30pm will your boss be accommodating about you dashing out the door to get straight under your duvet?
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What happens to our bodies when we disobey our circadian rhythms?
Dr Tang says the complexity of life can cause us to disrupt (or “override”) our preferred circadian rhythm.
She says that sleep deprivation can lead to a number of health and mood problems including irritability, an inability to think rationally as well as a lowered immune system.
“Jet lag is a good example of the feelings we may experience when our circadian rhythm is disrupted,” she adds.
“Sleep is also our body’s opportunity to repair and plays a role in regulating the production of some hormones important for health.
“If we do not sleep enough – ie. disobey our circadian rhythm – we may also produce more ghrelin – the hormone which signals hunger,” she adds.
READ MORE: Losing just 16 minutes sleep can ruin your work day
How to be more in tune with our natural circadian cycle?
Bank the deep sleep
“Winding down properly and getting five or six hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep is far better than seven or eight hours of broken sleep,” explains Silentnight’s sleep expert, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan.
“Our circadian rhythm is at its lowest between 9pm and 5am, making this the optimum time for good quality sleep.
Dr Nerina says that even if you get a good amount of sleep (7-9 hours), going to bed late is likely to lead to a large amount of your sleep being highly inefficient and without health benefits.
“If you're going to bed earlier and getting those valuable hours before midnight, you'll be able to wake up at 5 or 6am feeling refreshed and ready for the day ahead; any sleep after this time is nice but it isn't restorative.”
Take an tech-free sundowner
According to Dr Nerina when light levels drop in the evening, our circadian timer switches on and stimulates the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
“However the use of tech before bed disrupts this natural process,” she explains. “Screens on phones and tablets emit blue light which suppress the production of melatonin from the brain's pineal gland and stimulate the production of the chemical dopamine, which makes us feel alert and 'switched on'“
To avoid feeling wired and unable to drift off at bedtime she recommends an electronic sundowner 60-90 minutes before bed, which will recalibrate your circadian rhythm and allow your brain to wind down and prepare for sleep.
READ MORE: Surprising things that are stopping you sleeping
Wake and rise at the same time each day
According to the National Sleep Foundation the best way to keep your body clock on track is to follow a regular sleep/wake schedule. Playing catch-up, either by sleeping in or taking long naps on the weekend, may feel luxurious, but it can set your sleep pattern back in the long run.
“Oversleeping can disrupt your circadian rhythm as it can cause a shift in the circadian cycle and lead to circadian rhythm sleep disorder,” Dr Nerina explains.
Expose yourself to natural sunlight in the mornings
Fling open the curtains or head outside for a workout, this will help reset your body clock by triggering you brain to slow the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy.
Dr Tang says that some people do benefit from waking to a natural light, she suggests trying a light that stimulates natural sunlight in place of an alarm.
Make your bedroom body-clock friendly
Dr Tang says that simple things like making sure your bedroom is well ventilated, dark enough and at a comfortable temperature will help return your body to a more natural circadian rhythm.
“Simple centred breathing (breathing in for 4, holding for 2, and out through the mouth for 6) whilst listening to nature sounds, gentle music, or even a relaxation podcast can be the final step for restful night,” Dr Tang says.