Get the Perfect Night's Sleep with Circadian Rhythm Charts
You can’t actually hear a tick (or a tock), but every person and animal in the world has an internal clock that beats to a certain rhythm. This results in alterations in the body’s sense of energy and even the mind’s mood. It’s called circadian rhythm, and it’s pivotal to understanding how to get a perfect night’s sleep each and every night.
As you may already know, circadian rhythms can impact your body’s ability to get a good sleep at night. But they can also affect your body temperature, hormone levels, and eating habits. Naturally, something this influential throughout the body is linked to overall health in many ways. Circadian rhythms that get “out of order” can result in physical health conditions such as weight gain, blood sugar issues such as diabetes, or mental health problems like depression.
Circadian rhythms can impact your body’s ability to get good sleep at night. But they can also affect your body temperature, hormone levels, and eating habits.
It stands to reason that, in order to experience the best and healthiest sleep possible, we all need to know about this all-important internal clock, how to keep it ticking to the right rhythm, and what it can tell us about getting the rest we need...for every good night.
In order to experience the best and healthiest sleep possible, we all need to know about this all-important internal clock, how to keep it ticking to the right rhythm, and what it can tell us about getting the rest we need.
How Do Circadian Rhythms Actually Work?
Every person’s body has what might be referred to as their “primary internal clock”. This is mainly guided by a part of the brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which itself is located within the hypothalamus. All of this works together to control the body’s circadian rhythms.
Many things can affect your circadian rhythm, such as your genetic makeup. As with so many aspects of our biological traits, the body’s rhythms are also largely inherited from parents. If you have a particular sleep difficulty — such as insomnia — then it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that either of your biological parents also deal with that same issue.
Of course, external factors can play a big role as well. Of all external cues, the most important is arguably light and darkness. As humans, we are all “programmed” to go to sleep during dark hours and stay awake during daylight hours.
Every person’s body has what might be referred to as their “primary internal clock.”
There’s actually a direct connection between the receptors and nerves in the eyes and the hypothalamus — the part of the brain that controls the main internal clock that we discussed before. Darkness sends a message to the brain that it’s time for bed. This triggers a release of melatonin to make it easier to fall asleep.
(Fun fact: The opposite of melatonin is cortisol, sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight hormone”, which helps us to stay awake.)
To tie it all together: Light or darkness triggers the eye, which messages the brain, and the brain releases a flood of sleep hormones. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.
What Makes an Internal Clock Tick?
But it doesn’t always happen like it’s supposed to. Many people struggle with getting to sleep at a reasonable hour each night. It’s as if their brains have been turned upside down somehow. If you’ve ever heard someone say “My circadian rhythm is off,” then you sort of know what’s going on. These parts of the body just aren’t working like they should.
In truth, there are a number of “normal” types of personalized internal circadian rhythms. These are called chronotypes, and most people fall into one of two camps: early birds or night owls.
Many people struggle with getting to sleep at a reasonable hour each night. It’s as if their brains have been turned upside down somehow. If you’ve ever heard someone say “My circadian rhythm is off,” then you sort of know what’s going on. These parts of the body just aren’t working like they should.
Early Birds (or Larks)
If it’s easy for you to get up early, and you also tend to have a ton of energy in the morning hours, then you’re probably an early bird (sometimes called a lark). Many early birds/larks find that they really enjoy getting up early, even before the sun is up.
If you like to stay up late at night, and even find it difficult to get to bed before midnight on a regular basis, then you’re probably a night owl. Night owls can sometimes find working late into the night to be easier than waking up early each day.
Can I Change My Internal Clock?
Our chronotypes can change over time, especially as we age. The Harvard Business Review writes, “Most people tend to experience such shifts across their lifetimes, such that they are larks as very young children, owls as adolescents, and then larks again as they become senior citizens. But beyond this pattern, people of any age can be larks or owls.”
However, aside from that, many people want to actively change their own internal clock. Can this be done? How should it be done?
The answer to the first question is yes, it absolutely can be done. The answer to the second question is slowly, as a gradual process over time. In other words, intentional efforts to alter your own chronotype (or internal clock) can be done, but they should usually be tried very slowly, as a gradual process over time, for the best results.
Can you change your internal clock? Yes, you can! But it should be done intentionally and gradually, over time, for the best results.
How to Become an Early Bird
If you want to become more of an early bird, then try setting your alarm to go off ten minutes earlier than usual for a couple of weeks — then another ten minutes, and another, and another. Soon, you’ll be waking up a full hour earlier than you were, by the simple process of gradually changing your alarm.
How to Get to Sleep Earlier
The opposite can work for night owls by getting in bed ten minutes earlier every night for a few weeks, following the same process. After a month or two, you can easily be hitting the hay a full hour or more earlier each night.
Circadian Rhythm Sleep Problems and How to Fix Them
In the same way that we can try to alter our own circadian rhythms, plenty of internal or external factors can have a negative affect. These range from very normal and natural biological occurrences to travel and technology use.
If you’re having trouble falling asleep at night, try putting away the phone. One of the leading causes of sleeplessness is too much screen time. Remember that your brain interprets light as a reason to stay awake and darkness as a cue for melatonin and sleep. Along the same lines, you can try a sleep mask to cut out even more potential light from reaching your eyes.
We’ve all heard the term jet lag, but now you know what it really means. It means that your “biological clock” on the inside is expecting one thing, but the world outside is giving it something else. The body is anticipating daylight hours, but it’s dark outside, or the other way around. As a result, we have to sort of persuade our bodies into switching gears. There are several tricks to pull this off when travelling internationally, such as staying awake until a normal sleeping hour in your new time zone, being outside as much possible, and staying active and engaged with other people. All of these can help on their own; collectively, they’re sort of like a superpower for quickly overcoming jet lag. Try it next time you travel over multiple time zones.
Too Much Sleep
Believe it or not, your body needs a schedule just as much as you do. The perfect schedule for your circadian rhythm would be to go to sleep and wake up at nearly the exact same time every day. This isn’t possible for many, but the closer you can get to that scenario the better.
As you may know, we aren’t nocturnal creatures. In fact, we’re the opposite. We’re what’s called diurnal, which means we’re usually most active during the day and most dormant at night. The problem with working a graveyard shift (or “night shift”) is that it completely turns this around. If someone works a shift through the night, it can really mess up the body’s internal clock. There’s even a term for it: shift work disorder. Something as simple as taking a daytime nap (or one during the shift, if allowed) can do wonders to reset the body’s inner clock.
For women, sleep can sometimes pose an issue each month around periods of menstruation. It’s possible that this is actually the circadian rhythm briefly changing before resetting itself. Light therapy has been shown to help some women with menstruation related sleeping issues.
If someone works a shift through the night, it can really mess up the body’s internal clock. There’s even a term for it: shift work disorder. Something as simple as taking a daytime nap (or one during the shift, if allowed) can do wonders to reset the body’s inner clock.
Get the Perfect Night’s Sleep with Your Circadian Rhythm Chart
Now that you understand how circadian rhythms work, it’s time for the next step: looking at your own internal clock.
Here’s an example of what a “typical” circadian rhythm chart might look like.
To figure out your own circadian rhythm chart, there are a number of possibilities. Here are two of the easiest and most straightforward:
- Create a simple spreadsheet like this one to track your energy levels, sleep time, and wake time for each day over the course of a few weeks or a month
- Use a smart device, such as an Apple Watch or a Fitbit that can actually track your calorie expenditure/energy, as well as waking and sleeping time, every day, automatically.
Whichever method you use, review the information and data after about a month to see what it shows. You may find that your own sleeping patterns surprise you!
Either way, once you have the information, you can go about setting up a new circadian rhythm chart based on how you want to feel throughout the day, and how much sleep you want to be getting during the night. Then, you can use the skills and techniques mentioned on this page to help you get a better night’s sleep each and every night.