While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to transition to working from home, some are finding it difficult to sleep. One of the reasons for this problem is caused by disruptions to the circadian rhythms that regulate our sleep-wake cycle.
Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. These natural processes respond primarily to light and dark and affect most living things, including animals, plants, and microbes. Chronobiology is the study of circadian rhythms. One example of a light-related circadian rhythm is sleeping at night and being awake during the day. Natural factors in your body produce circadian rhythms. For humans, some of the most important genes in this process are the Period and Cryptochrome genes. These genes code for proteins that build up in the cell’s nucleus at night and lessen during the day. However, signals from the environment also affect circadian rhythms. For instance, exposure to light at a different time of day can reset when the body turns on Period and Cryptochrome genes.
Exposure to the bright sunlight during the day resets the circadian clocks to precisely 24 hours each day. However, exposure to artificial light at night can derail this system and cause havoc with the temporal coordination of physiology and behavior. Exposure to artificial light, a common way that we impair the function of our internal clocks is something called ‘social jet lag’. Social jet lag is the phase delay in your internal clock and sleep that occurs when you stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights to socialize and then sleep in on the following days to catch up. Social jet lag is what often makes Monday mornings so miserable and can disrupt circadian rhythms as actual jet lag. Shifting from working at home to an office requires a shift in wake times because of the need for preparation and commuting. The key to good circadian hygiene is consistency in daily functioning.
And did you know that poor sleep has an impact on our appetite? Poor sleep affects hormones that regulate appetite. Those who get adequate sleep tend to eat fewer calories than those who don’t. Plus going to sleep earlier reduces late night snacking.
A few tips to help manage your circadian rhythm:
- Make your bedroom completely dark (during the day if you are working night shifts) and make your workspace bright during the day (or if on night shift)—in other words mimic the natural day-night cycles in your home and office.
- If possible, get 30-plus minutes of exposure to sunlight in the morning (take a walk or run).
- Use bright illumination during the day to mimic daylight and use black-out curtains, or a sleep mask at night.
- Ask your personal physician about whether she would recommend melatonin; melatonin helps align circadian rhythms in most folks when taken two hours before sleep onset.
Along with nutrition and exercise, good sleep is one of the pillars of health. Getting at least 8 hours of sleep can improve your immune function and help fight the common cold. A good night’s sleep is incredibly important for your health.