What does our body need to stay in balance? These suggestions for managing daily behaviors, especially sleep, can lead to better health and a happier life
Nature has a rhythm. We see it in the way the seasons change, the way the tide comes in and out, and the way the sun rises and sets. It all happens as it is supposed to. Circadian rhythms regulate the physiological processes of living animals and plants within about a 24-hour cycle. This rhythm is created internally, but it can be modified by external factors, such as temperature and sunlight. When we look at patterns of daily behavior, such as eating and sleeping, circadian rhythms are key.
Before the world had electricity, people stayed in rhythm with nature’s cycles. People woke up with the sun, worked in the daylight and went to bed not too long after dark. It wasn’t that long ago that the few television channels we received signed off at midnight, and there was no overnight programming. But now, we live in a 24/7 world. We do business with foreign countries by computer and phone at all times of the day and night. We travel across oceans and time zones in a matter of hours. We don’t have to wait for stores to open because we can shop online whenever we want. And between the thousands of television and radio stations we have access to, along with internet options, we never are lacking in around-the-clock entertainment. Given the amenities of life we have at our fingertips, it’s understandable how easily our own rhythms can get out of synch with nature.
Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of integrated medicine from India that says the mind and body operate most efficiently when we go to bed at the same time each night, 10 p.m., and arise at the same time each morning, 6 a.m. According to Ayurveda, this is an essential practice for people to be in harmony with nature and to be their healthiest and happiest selves. Ayurveda advises people who need less sleep to wake up earlier in the morning. For those who need more sleep, they go to bed earlier at night. Meals are planned for optimal digestion, with the largest meal of the day consumed around noon.
Night owls and early birds
While this sounds like a healthy lifestyle choice, is it possible for everyone?
Modern science has identified chronotypes among people. While habits play a role in this, a person’s chronotype, or internal clock, is most influenced by genetics and can be difficult to change. There are early birds and night owls, and many others in between. We each have a chronotype that fits on a bell curve alongside everyone else’s. Approximately 30% to 50% of people fall in the middle of this curve, sleeping between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. About 40% of people have sleep cycles that fall about an hour or so down the sides of the curve, sleeping between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., or between midnight and 8 a.m.
Then, there are those who fall on the edges of the curve. Many teenagers tend to be in this category as their changing hormones can affect their chronotype. They prefer to stay up later and wake up later, though this pattern shifts earlier as they age. Because both science and educators have recognized this, some schools now are starting later to help their students to be more alert and productive during class time. With flex schedules and more jobs available for nighttime workers, some people benefit from being a night owl.
Having a sleep schedule that is outside the norm can be a problem, as society tends to reward early risers. The expression “the early bird catches the worm” dates back to the early 17th century. For those who need to get to bed early and wake up early, it’s not so difficult to fit in. But people who need to stay up late and wake up late often struggle to conform to the duties and expectations that come with a 9-to-5 job.
When a person’s body clock is out of sync with society’s clock, scientists call it “social jet lag,” which puts stress on the body and mind that can affect job performance and undermine health. Research from 2012 showed that those with social jet lag were more likely to be overweight, had a greater risk for depression and were more likely to participate in risky behaviors such as smoking or drinking. It’s not the chronotype itself that causes these problems, it’s the mismatch between the chronotype and the daily schedule. In addition, if night owls are getting less sleep because they are getting up earlier, while not going to bed earlier, this ongoing sleep deficit also can create a risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Becoming an early bird
If night owls can’t change their work hours, there are ways that they can shift their internal clock to earlier in the day. However, this requires commitment and can be difficult to maintain.
One way to shift is through a combination of bright light therapy and melatonin. Usually being out in the sun provides the natural light exposure necessary for our internal clock. But when working in an office all day, we don’t always get the sun we need. There are lamps that mimic the sun that can be helpful. Leaving the curtains open at night so the morning sun streams in is a good strategy, as is going for an early morning walk or run. With light therapy, you must stick to the same schedule every day of the week. If you sleep in on the weekend you can set back all the progress you’ve made up to that point.
The body naturally produces the hormone melatonin at night when it is dark, but melatonin production varies from person to person. Taking a melatonin capsule three to four hours before the desired bedtime will help night owls feel sleepier earlier than they usually do. Think of this new routine with light therapy and melatonin as a sleep diet and be diligent with it.
Another option to reset the body clock is chronotherapy. Rather than trying to go to bed earlier than usual, night owls can try going to bed two hours later each night until they reach their desired bedtime. This process can be successful, but it takes about two weeks. Few people have such control over their schedules for that length of time to follow through with the plan.
Another strategy for groggy night owls is the midday “coffee nap.” When you feel tired, adenosine, a chemical that promotes sleep, circulates throughout the body. When you fall asleep, adenosine levels drop. Caffeine competes with adenosine, preventing your brain from receiving adenosine. So, you feel less sleepy. It takes 20 minutes for caffeine to take effect. On your lunch break, try quickly drinking a half of a cup of coffee or so, then setting your alarm for a 20-minute nap. This way, your body doesn’t get into the deep sleep state. You also can rest or meditate during that time, if you prefer. At the end of the 20 minutes, the caffeine starts to kick in, and you’ll have the energy boost from the quick nap or rest. Just make sure that you don’t consume caffeine past 2 p.m. or you’ll have a more difficult time getting to sleep at bedtime.
Whether you’re a night owl or a early bird, or anything in between, make sure the sleep you get, whenever you get it, is on a comfortable and supportive mattress. This way you’ll wake up refreshed no matter what time it is.
Lissa Coffey is a spokeswoman for the Better Sleep Council and the founder of CoffeyTalk.com. A lifestyle and wellness expert, she’s written several books and has been a frequent guest on national and local television shows.