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A circadian rhythm is a daily cycle of biological processes that the body undergoes in response to the environment, mostly as a response to light. I have found that regulating my circadian rhythm has been very helpful in managing my autoimmunity, most likely because of its positive effects on cortisol. Here are a few of the biggies that effect our circadian rhythms:
- Light – Exposure to light is the most powerful influence on our circadian rhythm. It stimulates the release of cortisol, which gives us energy and puts our bodies in “fight or flight” mode. The natural curve of cortisol is to raise in the morning, as we awaken and are exposed to bright morning light, and then taper off at night as the sun goes down and our bodies prepare for sleep. Erratic sleep/wake cycles and exposure to light at the wrong time of day can really throw off this cycle.
- Eating – It has been shown that the timing of our meals can have an impact on circadian rhythm, especially at night. Eating at night interferes with the release of melatonin, which is necessary for preparing the body to fall asleep.
- Exercise – The intensity and timing of exercise can affect circadian rhythm by influencing cortisol patterns, as exercise raises cortisol.
My experience with circadian rhythm
Part of my recovery from autoimmunity involved recovering also from adrenal fatigue, which I will write about in another post. Back then I had a very dysregulated cortisol pattern that was causing me massive disruptions in energy levels and sleep. I would wake up exhausted and unable to function until I ate breakfast. I would then have a little kick of energy for about an hour before I would sink back into a low around lunchtime and early afternoon. Then after dinner I would get a huge boost of energy, and that is when I would try to get things done or exercise. I was then unable to fall asleep, with my mind racing and body not able to relax.
I believe my cortisol dysregulation began as a result of working an erratic schedule as a barista. In the same week, I would have some shifts that would require me to wake up at 4AM, and others that would require me to be up until midnight. I was not able to allow my body to get into any sort of rhythm, in addition to being addicted to caffeine and using it as a tool to keep myself awake when my body wanted to sleep. That came back to haunt me when I needed to sleep, and it was a vicious cycle as I was kept awake most of the night. When I quit my job and had control over my schedule again, I implemented some of the following tips to fix my circadian rhythms.
Some tips to help you get back on track:
- Find a sleep/wake rhythm and stick to it. Set a time that you can realistically go to bed at, and a wake time that affords you enough sleep (8-9 hours). Try not to deviate from this more than 1-2 hours, including on the weekends. If you need to transition from your current schedule, do it gradually – 5-10 minutes a day until you reach your goal.
- Make a point to expose yourself to sunlight during the day. In addition to helping regulate circadian rhythm, it is important to get regular sun exposure to make vitamin D. At least 15 minutes a day is good, but aim for more as long as you take care not to get a sunburn.
- Protect yourself from blue light before bed. If you go to bed early, you may be able to get away with not using your computer or turning your lights off after the sun goes down. This isn’t realistic for most people, so you may need to use some tools to manage your light exposure after dark. F.lux is a computer program that modifies the light output on your computer, tablet, or phone to the time of day to manage your blue light exposure. Another option is to use amber-tinted goggles once the sun goes down. This is the most effective method as it also protects you from indoor lighting.
- Don’t eat before bed. I aim to give myself a window of 3-4 hours after I eat dinner and before going to sleep. This might not be doable for someone with blood sugar issues, but as you start consuming a diet with more fat and less carbohydrate your body will be more adapted to not snacking and feeling hungry all the time.
- Don’t exercise before bed. Try to exercise earlier in the day, in the morning or afternoon if you can. If you are slow to wake up, getting outside and exercising earlier in the day can help train your body to make more cortisol in the morning. If you have a hard time falling asleep, don’t exercise before bed as this can exacerbate high night time cortisol.
What kind of changes have I noticed since implementing these tips?
I wake up naturally without an alarm clock, energized and refreshed. I have stable energy throughout the day, and no longer need to use caffeine or carbohydrates to energize myself in order to get by. I still have problems falling asleep sometimes, which I have had success in remedying with a bedtime ritual, including no computer use and dimming the lights a couple of hours before bed. Every once in awhile (like recently with working on the cookbook), I find myself slipping into bad habits, like using the computer before bed. I have to give myself a reminder to get back on track so that I can continue to see the benefits from the lifestyle changes I have implemented.
Have you had success with any of these strategies to manage your circadian rhythms?
Sun Exposure and Vitamin D:
Why Sun Exposure is So Important: