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Fascinating Rhythm

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Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

Have you been struggling to catch your quota of z’s during the recent heat waves? It may be that warm temperatures are messing with your circadian rhythm, the natural, environmentally determined pattern of various bodily functions that occur over the course of each 24-hour cycle and help keep us on our biological schedule in time with nature’s daily cycles

One of the things regulated by circadian rhythm is body temperature. Our core temperature is lowest in the early morning, a few hours before we normally wake up. It then gradually rises throughout the day, peaking a couple of hours before we start to feel sleepy at night. This is followed by a rise in melatonin levels triggered as darkness begins to fall, helping prepare you for the sandman’s arrival as you cool down.

But what if it’s bedtime and you can’t cool down? The body gets confused, the natural cycle is disrupted, and the tossing and turning begin. There is also a comfort factor for many of us that just don’t like feeling too warm, whether it’s the middle of the day or evening. As the world’s temperatures are setting records faster than ever before, with thousands perishing all over the planet from heat-related illnesses, this problem is going to get worse. The best thing you can do is find a way to trick your circadian rhythm into thinking it’s cooling down at the end of the day.

Tricking your circadian rhythm

Restoring your circadian rhythm will have other health benefits besides giving you a good night’s sleep.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but a hot bath will raise your core temperature so that when you get out of the tub it will then lower significantly, signaling the body to get sleepy. The relaxation factor of a bath may also help, especially if you’ve been trying to function in uncomfortable temperatures all day.

Setting up a fan in your bedroom may have a twofold purpose. Air movement is cooling and the white noise of the fan’s motor can be relaxing. An ice pack or damp cool towel placed on the neck or wrists can be cooling. Wearing and sleeping in breathable materials like cotton can also be helpful. Stay away from screens and other forms of stimulation, and keep your room dark. Restoring your circadian rhythm will have other health benefits besides giving you a good night’s sleep.

Our biological and master clock

What besides body temperature does circadian rhythm do? Called chronobiology, the study of circadian rhythms is the study of the biological clocks that exist in many different organisms. Nearly every tissue or organ contains the protein molecules that comprise our biological clocks. Genes that make these special proteins have been found in humans, mice, fruit flies, plants, and fungi, among other living things.

Light is one of the main factors contributing to the circadian cycle.

In humans, there is a “master clock”, a cluster of about 20,000 neurons located in the hypothalamus of the brain. This master clock is responsible for keeping all the other clocks in the body in sync. Because the master clock receives input from the eyes, light is one of the main factors contributing to the circadian cycle.

In humans, two genes code for the making of proteins that build up in the cells at night and then gradually decrease throughout the day. This process has been studied in fruit flies whose genes are remarkably like those of humans, and the cycle shows a pattern of wakefulness and sleepiness that most of us experience on a daily basis.

We are at our most alert in the morning and then as light decreases toward the end of the day we gradually feel more sleepy.  The sleep-inducing hormone melatonin is released as darkness falls. Because artificial light has been a part of human existence for many generations, we have somewhat upset our circadian rhythm and often end up taking melatonin supplements in an attempt to recover its effects.

Jet lag is another instance of circadian rhythm gone awry. The body is suddenly subjected to light and dark at unfamiliar times of day after hurtling through space across the planet and it can take quite a while to adjust to your new time zone. You may have noticed that jet lag is less severe when gaining time (Europe to North America) than it is when losing time (North America to Europe). The brain has different strategies for adjusting to each direction of travel.

Combatting circadian rhythm disorders

Hitting the circadian rhythm reset button will involve getting in sync with natural cycles.

Circadian rhythm disorders occur when the body cannot adjust to the environment it is in. While at first staying up all night in Paris may have some romantic appeal, eventually, health begins to suffer. Lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep is tolerable for a few days, but if it lasts, decreased alertness, memory problems, and difficulty making decisions may cause you to get on the wrong Metro and miss your flight home.

When sleep/wake cycle disorders are severe, your provider may want to look at other diagnostic tests or possibly do a sleep study when natural lifestyle adjustments have not been successful. However, in most cases, hitting the circadian rhythm reset button will involve getting in sync with natural cycles: less stimulating activity in the evening, cutting out late-night snacks, alcohol, and caffeine. Turn down the lights, and stay away from electronic stimulation. Besides melatonin, vitamin A may be helpful as it supports the pineal gland, the chief hormonal regulator of the body.

Exposing yourself to bright daylight in the morning can be helpful, as can moderate amounts of caffeine if you’re feeling sluggish in the a.m.

Up to 3% of adults and up to 16% of adolescents have been shown to suffer from chronic circadian rhythm disorders. If you feel out of sync with your environment and have tried all the natural remedies to bring back your own personal fascinating rhythm, see your provider for guidance. As the world heats up, we are going to need our rest.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.