The Body Clock

Tuning into circadian rhythms can dramatically improve health and well-being.
Photo by Morgan Maassen

By Dimitri Ehrlich

What if there was a natural way to improve performance in nearly every aspect of your life? Something that gave you an edge, without you taking any pills or spending a dime? Good news: There is a life hack that can radically improve your mood, wellness and energy levels, and it begins with getting a better night’s rest. First, a little learning: Our sleep is impacted by something called the circadian rhythm. Often referred to as the “body clock,” the circadian rhythm is a cycle, affected by environmental cues like sunlight and temperature, that tells our bodies when to sleep, rise and eat.

“If you create havoc in that process, besides disruption in your sleep, there may be a lot of unintended consequences,” says W. Chris Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. “Especially if you’re in a job that creates long-term dysregulation of the circadian rhythms. Doctors who work around the clock in a medical residency, or shift workers who are constantly changing their sleep schedules—their incidence of stroke and heart disease and cancer goes up.” Just because it takes you a long time to fall asleep doesn’t mean you’re heading toward disaster, says Dr. Winter: “The danger is sleep deprivation, not insomnia. When we suffer from anxiety, it makes us not perceive sleep—so an individual who got five or six hours of sleep only feels they slept an hour.”

The biggest regulator of our circadian rhythm is light, which includes not only the sun but also electric light and LED screens. When we use computer screens or look at our phones, particularly at night, we are convincing our brain to think the sun is shining. The key is to create a schedule that works with, rather than against, our natural body clock. The more light you’re exposed to during the day, the less melatonin your body will create. As a result, you’ll feel more energetic and less drowsy. Conversely, the less light you are exposed to in the hours before going to bed, the more melatonin your body will naturally produce. Even making a small change, such as gradually dimming the lights and having less exposure to computer screens once the sun goes down, can help the body to produce more melatonin and get you more in sync with your body’s circadian rhythm. The result? Better rest, without a sleeping pill.