How to reset your elusive sleep schedule

Sleep is a biological necessity. Contrary to what many people say, sleep  deprivation is not a symbol of hard work , and sleep is not a luxury that can be traded for more work or sadly, even for parties. Name any bodily system- digestive, endocrine, immune- chances are, it is going to be affected by problems in sleep.  Apart from the quality and quantity of sleep which are more frequently discussed, the regularity of our sleep-wake cycle is important too. It is ideal to have the required hours of sleep around the same time everyday, rather than sleeping at 10 p.m one day and at 2 a.m the next. 

Circadian Misalignment

To maintain the rhythmicity of our sleep, body temperature, blood pressure and other biological activities, our body has an internal clock called the “circadian clock” that is primarily handled by the Suprachiasmatic nucleus of the brain (It is a mouthful, so let’s call it SCN). In a way, it is the internal representation of the 24-hours cycle that is calibrated by a lot of factors around and within us. It is ideal to have this biological clock synchronized with your social clock, because major incompatibilities between the two clocks can be distressing and can have negative effects on functioning. These incompatibilities which include “delays, advances and/or complete dysregulations of someone’s sleep-wake cycle”, if clinically significant, can be diagnosed as a disorder under the umbrella of “Circadian rhythm sleep disorders”. Find more information on the disorders here.

But why fix it?

Even if many of our cycles are not disrupted enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis, there is no reason to not fix it nonetheless, given there are evidence-based ways to do so.

The importance of a good night’s sleep has been outlined in a previous lonepack post. An irregular sleep-wake cycle takes a toll on our mental health too and we will be left to navigate through the day feeling irritated and unable to concentrate. There will be difficulty in fulfilling social obligations and a lot of time will go wasted in failed attempts to fall asleep. We will also feel a loss of control and predictability which would lead to frustration. To top it all off, motivation and productivity also will plummet. Research studies link this circadian rhythm disruption to Depression-like symptoms, anxiety, Bipolar disorder, and Schizophrenia. Note that this does NOT necessarily mean that irregular sleep cycles lead to these disorders, or are consequences of having such disorders; it just means they have a tendency to co-occur. 

Now, the “HOW”

It is pertinent and fair that we clarify a few things at this point:

  •  The following steps will probably be more helpful for those who wish to realign their sleep-wake pattern than for those who wish to sleep more. 
  • There is also a real chance that some people might require professional help based on their personalized needs and history. 

1. Light

Light is the most important cue by which our internal body clock estimates the time of the day, which in turn translates to the time of our sleep or wakefulness. Recent research by Dr.Andrew Huberman and his team suggests that there are specialized cells in our eyes that can detect the yellow and blue wavelengths of the sky and communicate it to the SCN (the timekeeper that we talked about). In other words, our subconscious processing of the sky colour has the potential to adjust our internal clock. Leveraging it, approximately 8 minutes of watching the evening sky that transforms from light to dark can be a strong cue for our SCN. So take a look outside for a bit everyday to help with the cues for your SCN. 

However, unlike our ancestors, the technology that we have has provided us with many sources of light other than the sun, which can confuse our brain clock. Although any light during night can be off-putting to our sleep, blue light has the highest capacity to suppress melatonin secretion (Melatonin is a hormone which is involved in making us sleepy). Now, apart from the obvious but difficult option of avoiding devices close to bedtime, there are other alternatives to iron this out. There are several applications out there that filter out the blue light from the devices and some phones have a built-in “Night mode” option that can help with this. So, use blue light filter applications or better yet, minimise screen time at night to help reset your sleep cycle.

2. Exercise

Exercise and Sleep have a mutual, give-and-take relationship between them. Enough quality sleep is necessary to undergo exercise and appropriate exercise can help with sleep. It was found in a study that every hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity above an individual’s average can advance the onset of sleep by 18 minutes. So, make sure to get some optimal exercise in but also be aware that it is advised that people with disrupted sleep-wake cycles do not perform exercise close to bed time  (5-6 hours before sleep) , as it may stimulate our nervous system and increase body temperature which is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.  

3. Caffeine

Caffeine is ingested by most of us on a daily-basis in the form of tea, coffee or chocolates. But there are at least three ways by which caffeine interrupts sleep. It increases dopamine making you more alert, it suppresses melatonin and blocks adenosine, both of which play a role in making you sleepy. So, make sure to take caffeine only in the initial part of the day, as it has a long half-life period of around 6 hours, meaning it takes 6 hours for half of caffeine to get metabolized in your body.

4. Diet

We all have heard at some point that eating heavy before sleeping is bad, but how? Our digestive system does not actually turn off when we are asleep, but it does tend to slow down. So a heavy meal during the later part of the day may cause indigestion and/or the regurgitation of food and stomach acid which we call “acid reflux”. We might not realize that our sleep is affected by this but it does prevent us to enter deeper stages of sleep. So begin the day with larger meals  and proceed to lighter ones as we near our desired sleep time. 

5. Calming the nervous system 

Apart from these, anything that has the tendency to calm our nervous system might work because a hyperactive brain and body are the villains of sleep initiation. Keeping the temperature a bit lower, meditation practices, or anything from music to weighted blankets can help in this regard. Using the bed only for sleeping and not for anything else allows us to form an association between the bed and a relaxed, sleepy state.   

However, if certain factors like anxiety and stress have been playing a role, then you probably need more intervention to address the issues. Always remember, you gotta get the ZZZs, the right amount at the right time, to feel the YAYYs as you spring out of bed.

REFERENCES:

https://www.sleepfoundation.org/

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44059-9

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-020-0694-0

http://www.hubermanlab.com/publications.html

https://www.circadiansleepdisorders.org/index.php

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