How to ‘reset’ your circadian rhythm and establish a good routine

15 September 2020 - 4 minute read

It’s fair to say that the coronavirus outbreak has upended our day-to-day lives and wiped away many of the daily routines we’re so used to.

Right now, while we continue to collectively grapple with the fallout, there are a number of things that are out of our control. Making sure we continue to get quality sleep, however, doesn’t have to be one of them.

IA good night’s sleep isn’t just about how long we sleep. Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule is just as important when it comes to maintaining our health. That said, with so much uncertainty currently, keeping any kind of schedule can be hard. You might be still adjusting to working from home, or beginning to return back to the office. Either way, we’ve all had to face some major challenges over the last few weeks.

Keeping things regular

If you have a habit of falling asleep early one night, then going to bed at 3 a.m. the next night, only to fall asleep again at midnight the night after, youre putting yourself at a higher risk of heart attack and heart disease1. A regular sleep time is defined as falling asleep within the same 30-minute window on average. For example, if you fell asleep at 11 p.m. one night and 11:27 p.m. the next night, you’d still be within the parameters of your regular sleep time. But straying far from your regular sleep schedule where there is an average 90-minute gap between your regular sleep times, increases your risk of cardiovascular disease significantly.

The bottom line is to keep your sleep routine as consistent as possible – and that goes for the weekend, too.

A closer look

Let’s look at the importance of a healthy ‘sleep routine' more closely. You wake up to your alarm, on your phone, and reach over to turn it off. While you’re there you check the notifications beamed in overnight from your news, sport and entertainment feeds, your social media apps, emails and texts from work and friends. Your mouth is dry, your head already a whirl with what’s to come this morning, the curtains leaking light and the TV standby light at the foot of the bed staring unblinking at you, reminding you how you finished the night before.

Welcome to your day. Did you sleep well? Do you know how to sleep well? Does it actually matter?

The natural process that has been with us since mankind began is being stripped away by the many aspects of modern life. Artificial light, technology, shift work, sleeping tablets, travel, checking our phones when we wake, working late - even running out of the house and skipping breakfast to race to our jobs on time. They’re all taking us away from this natural process, and this is where our problems with rest and recovery begin.

Resetting the clock

It’s time to ‘re-set’ our circadian rhythm (body clock). A circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal cycle managed by our body clock. This clock of ours, deep within the brain, regulates our internal systems – from sleeping and eating patterns, hormone production (including our sleep hormone melatonin), temperature and alertness, to mood and digestion - all within a 24-hour process that has evolved to work in harmony with the Earth’s rotation.  Our body clocks are set by external cues, chief among them being daylight, as well as things like temperature and eating times. It is vital to understand that these rhythms are ingrained within us; they are part of the fabric of each and every one of us.

A typical circadian rhythm, which describes what our body wants to do naturally at various points throughout the day, looks like this2:


 

Five steps to sleep smarter:

1. Make sleep a priority

How many times do you think to yourself you should go to bed, but end up watching another episode of something on TV? Make it a priority to get 9 hours of sleep a night - that way you should stand a fighting chance of getting at least 8 hours.

2. Establish a routine

Set a time - say 9pm – when you will start to get ready to go to bed (set an alarm if you need to be reminded). Then over the next hour, power down. Do something relaxing, meditate, take a bath or shower, read a book or listen to music.

 3. Don’t fear the dark

When you get to bed make sure the room is dark. Electric lights and iPad screens weren’t around when we evolved. Use a dimmer on your light if you have one, and don't pick up your phone or tablet to check Facebook ‘one last time’ before going to sleep. OSPM Optometrist Connie Tsang recommends “It is best to stop screen use at least one hour before bedtime to reduce the risk of circadian rhythm disruption due to blue light. Fatigue and eyestrain with screen use may be associated with reduced contrast due to blue light, therefore reducing blue light can improve visual comfort. Strategies to reduce blue light exposure include turning down screen brightness, using an app such as f.lux to modify the colour of the screen after dark.”

4. Not too hot, not too cold

Try to have your bedroom at a comfortable temperature. If it’s too hot or too cold, you won’t sleep well. Somewhere between 17-19 degrees celsius is ideal – the Goldilocks zone if you like. A little trick to use if you’re struggling to sleep is to get up and stand either in the bathroom or kitchen, where the tiles create a nice cool space. Stay there until you are uncomfortably cool, then climb back into bed and snuggle down. Also try flipping your pillow over as the underside is normally colder. This should help lull you to sleep.

5. Quiet, please

Aim for a quiet, disruption free environment when going to sleep. That means removing pets, children and maybe even partners from the bed if they are causing you to lose sleep. 

Oh, and before we wish you goodnight, here’s one final ‘re-set’ tip. Due to the fruit’s high sleep-promoting serotonin levels, it has been shown that eating two kiwifruit an hour before bed can help reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, as well as increase the length of time you sleep. The vitamin C in the fruit also helps boost the immune system function and enhance cell protection and repair. Kiwi is not called a ‘super fruit’ for nothing3!

With a background in natural health, Rachel has been specialising in the area of occupational fatigue management for the last 11 years, including regularly leading Fatigue Management Masterclasses, as well as presenting at a number of industry conferences to speak on the subject of fatigue management. Rachel facilitated NZ’s first research study on the prevalence of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in a Commercial Driver population, which was co-funded by ACC and the Log Transport Safety Council (LTSC). Rachel remains very involved with the LTSC’s efforts to identify & support high risk OSA drivers, and currently sits on the Sleep Apnea Association of NZ (SAANZ) committee. https://www.frms.co.nz/


References:

  1. Huang, T. et al. (2020 Sleep Irregularity and Risk of Cardiovascular Events: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis.Journal of the American College of Cardiology
  2. Image sources from Hansford, D. Slaves to the Rhythm. https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/slaves-to-the-rhythm/
  3.  Lin, H-H. et al. (2011) Effect of Kiwifruit Consumption on Sleep Quality in Adults With Sleep Problems. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21669584/
Tags:
Sleeping Well
Routines
Covid-19