Understanding circadian rhythms has taken scientists a long time and so much dedication that it has its own form of study: chronobiology. Over decades of research, scientists have concluded that circadian rhythms, which are the changes a person experiences physically and mentally over a 24 hour period, are the body’s natural reaction to light. In order to react, the body has a naturally occurring biological clock that allows molecules to interact with organs and tissue. On a bigger scale, the body contains a master clock, which controls all of the neurons that control the hypothalamus in the brain, which helps process any light information received by your eyes.
Circadian rhythms control much more than just sleep patterns. They are responsible for helping release certain hormones in the proper amounts at the proper times, regulating body temperature, and helps control your hunger and digestion. For example, many people experience hunger pretty early in the morning, and that is the circadian rhythm of their body knowing it needs fuel to start the day!
Because circadian rhythms have so much control of our lives, when they get out of whack, we tend to experience exhaustion, more frequent illness, and can even develop permanent disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. Who is most at risk?
The main reason circadian rhythms end up changing is due to shift work or jet lag. People who work the night shift, especially for many years, will find it hard to adjust their schedules back to “normal”, even after they move to a day shift or retire. People who often travel for work, especially through multiple time zones, may experience similar problems as their circadian rhythm may never find a “normal”. Something as simple as using your cell phone before bed can also disrupt your circadian rhythm, even if you dim the brightness on the screen!
Do you often find yourself struggling to fall asleep at night? Do you have trouble waking up early? Understanding your own schedule and body can help you balance your circadian rhythm so that you can find the best sleep possible.