Sleep and Success: Circadian Rhythms Beware!

  • Post author:

Fairy Tale, Night, Music, Fish, Sky, Fly, Flight, Sleep

Being the best version of ourselves, whether it is to be successful in work, education, being a good partner and/or parent, or an exceptional athlete requires sleep; it is essential to recharge our brains and bodies. When we are tired, we can often move task to task but without the necessary focus and sometimes without completing important responsibilities. In our busy society, sleep is often viewed as a luxury. Professional and personal commitments can certainly complicate getting regular sleep. As we anticipate changing the clocks on November 7th focusing on sleep at this time can be helpful as such a change in our sleep cycle takes us a full month for our biology to adjust to the radical shift in wake/sleep cycles.

The circadian rhythm is responsible for sleep quantity and quality, regulating our sleep cycles and telling us when it’s time to wake up and go to sleep. Thecircadian rhythm is a series of physical, mental and behavioral changes that the body goes through every day. This rhythm regulates many things, from our sleep cycles to our body temperatures.

The circadian rhythm is controlled by the hypothalamus and even more particularly, a smaller part called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. While the hypothalamus is a small region of the brain, the hypothalamus plays a crucial role in many important functions. Located at the base of the brain, near the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus receives signals based on the amount of light you’re exposed to. When it’s dark outside, the hypothalamus receives the signals that it’s time to go to sleep. Your hypothalamus sends signals to your body to produce melatonin (the hormone responsible for making you feel tired). When it’s light outside, your body knows to produce less melatonin, which makes you feel more awake. All of this is altered by the clocks changing on November 7th.

As we think about sleep, here are a few habits to avoid:

1) Aim to consume your final meal about three hours before bedtime. Eating too close to bed will leave your digestive system working very hard and can cause an upset stomach throughout the night, as well as increase your blood sugar, giving you more energy, making it harder to fall asleep.

2) Caffeine is a stimulant which keeps the body alert and energized. Try to limit caffeine intake or stop it altogether after 2pm. Alcohol may initially calm you or make you feel drowsy, but it actually increases the number of times you will wake up during the night.

3)  If you read, watch TV or do work in bed, it will be hard to wind down. You want your brain to connect your bed with sleep, and intimacy. Not watching TV or using your computer, iPad, or iPhone an hour or longer before bed help promote sleep.

4)  Bright lights actually repress melatonin, which is responsible for regulating our sleep cycles. It is also recommended to avoid reading from back-lit devices late at night. The darker the room, the better. Try using heavy curtains or a sleep mask.

5) If you can’t sleep, after trying for 20-30 minutes, get up out of bed. Read something boring (not a great book that makes you want to keep turning the page), clean the bathroom or kitchen in low light (bright light will stimulate the wake cycle) and once you feel drowsy, try again and return to bed. Avoid your phone, iPad, computer or television screen as the blue light will stimulate you and serve to wake you up more.

6) For some people, a relaxing warm shower helps promote drowsiness. If this doesn’t work for you, you’ll know it soon enough.

Consider try building in these habits:

1) The power of positive thinking.

Before bed, make a list of five amazing things about your day. Expressing gratitude is known to improve sleep. Then make a list about what you plan to accomplish tomorrow. Staying focused will bring success.

2)  Exercise.

You need to expend energy. Exercise will make you feel better throughout your day and is wonderful for aiding in sleep. Exercise early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid stimulating the body before bed. If working out in the evening, give your body at least an hour or more to calm down before trying to go to sleep.

3)  Stay hydrated.

Staying hydrated is important all the time: during waking hours and approaching sleep time.

4) Get up early.

For many people, this is a key ingredient of success. If you want to accomplish big things and stay organized, get up early. Win the morning leads you to win the day.

5) Go to bed at roughly the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.

Do your best to maintain your sleep schedule even on the weekends.

6) Keep a cool room.

Research suggests that we sleep the best if our room is kept around 65°F.

7)  Tape your goals to your night side table.

That way the first thing you will see is your list. If you want to get a promotion or are working on major goals, write it down in big letters and read it every morning. 

The National Sleep Foundation provides these daily sleep guidelines:

  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
  • School-age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
  • Young adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
  • Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours

In general, it should take about 10 to 20 minutes for a person to drift off to sleep. If we believe that sleep is taking too long—whether it takes 20 minutes or an hour—it can spur anxiety about sleep that negatively affects sleep quality. Falling asleep as soon as one’s head hits the pillow is typically is an indication that you are sleep-deprived and not evidence that you are a good sleeper!

The term “sleep debt” refers to the difference between the amount of sleep someone needs and the amount of sleep they actually get; someone whose body requires 8 hours of sleep per night, for instance, but only gets 6, would accumulate a 14-hour sleep debt over the course of a week. Accumulating a large sleep debt is connected with increased risk of certain physical and mental health conditions, such as diabetes, depression and anxiety.

For many people, weighted blankets provide the same type of comfort as hugs or swaddling for babies. Wearing a Fitbit or sleep-tracking bracelet records when you fall asleep and wake up, and detect interrupted sleep; this can be a reassurance. When we worry we aren’t getting enough sleep, this is called paradoxical insomnia, which is stressful and frustrating.

A normal sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes, which often means waking at different intervals once a cycle is complete. There are also two different types of sleep cycles: Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep. Within those two different types, there are four stages of sleep.

Stage 1: This first stage of NREM sleep is a light sleep, lasting only a few minutes or so. In this stage, your body is preparing to fall into a deeper sleep, your eye movements slow down, as your brain begins producing alpha and theta waves. During this stage, you can be awoken easily.

Stage 2: During this NREM stage, you’re still lightly sleeping but your heart rate slows down, your muscles relax significantly and your body temperature decreases slightly. Eye movements slow down during this stage, and your brain waves slow down with occasional increases in activity.

Stage 3: This NREM stage is restorative and refreshing sleep. If someone woke you up during this stage, you would feel disoriented for a few minutes. Our eye movements slow down or stop, and it’s very difficult to wake us up. This is when your body repairs muscle, strengthening your immune system, consolidates memories and other vital body and brain processes.

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep: During REM sleep, our eye movements increase dramatically. REM sleep is the stage where you dream the most. During this stage, most of your muscles are in a paralyzed state, to keep you from acting out your dreams.

While the average sleep cycle lasts 90 minutes, we go through several cycles of varying lengths over the course of one night. During the first few sleep cycles, you’ll go through longer cycles of NREM sleep, followed by a few cycles of REM sleep. Research shows that most NREM sleep happens between the hours of 11pm and 3am, and REM sleep more often happens between 3am and 7am.

While many people look forward to ‘getting an extra hour of sleep’ soon, the biology and sleep cycles are complex and demanding so be patient with yourself as you and your body adjust to this new cycle. Maybe try to improve your sleep habits and hygiene to keep promoting a positive sense of your own well-being. As you adjust to the time change, be patient with yourself as your body works to catch up with the adjustment!