“To achieve the impossible dream, try going to sleep” - Joan Klempner
The truth of this quote goes beyond the wondrous stories our dreams allow us to experience. Healthy sleep allows you to find out what you are really made of.
Just think what it would be like to not have exhaustion weighing you down and sleep worries haunting your nights?
To solve trouble sleeping for good, you must fix your circadian rhythms. Your circadian rhythm is your biological clock and it is influenced by many factors including your genes, light exposure, hormone balance, physical activity, and meal frequency among others.
If your clock is “broken” due to stress, poor sleep habits, overtraining, eating at the wrong time, or a combination of these things, you’re never going to achieve a consistent good night’s sleep.
Here’s a basic overview of how the circadian clock works optimally:
• In the morning when you wake up, your body temperature is low and you get a surge in cortisol that increases blood pressure and gives you energy.
• Exposure to light shuts off melatonin production (a hormone that induces sleep), resetting the clock for the day.
• Sex hormone secretion occurs around 9 am and testosterone peaks.
• The body warms up through the middle of the day, and reaction time and physical performance peak between 2:30 and 6 pm. Athletic performance, strength, and power output are highest and risk of injury is lowest during this time.
• Protein synthesis peaks around 5 pm, which means that if you can train right before that, you’ll experience greater muscle growth and faster recovery.
• As sunset approaches, body temperature peaks and the hormone leptin is elevated, which will suppress hunger and signal the brain to release fat for burning when you sleep.
• Leptin also upregulates the thyroid and triggers changes in mitochondria to produce heat in the body to keep you warm during the night.
• Melatonin is secreted around 9 pm getting you ready for sleep. It downregulates neural function, allowing the brain to heal.
• Once you go to sleep, prolactin and growth hormone are released to burn fat overnight for energy and the reduction of any inflammation.
There are large individual differences in the actual timing of circadian rhythms, which is most influenced by your unique chronotype. Chronotype refers to whether you are more of a “morning” or “evening” person.
Sleeping according to your chronotype (for example, morning people going to bed early and getting up early) allows for more restful sleep, better hormone balance, and better ability to cope with stress.
For instance, men who sleep according to their chronotype have higher testosterone than those who don’t. Chronotype may also influence female reproduction. In one study, women who were classified as in-between morningness and eveningness had more trouble getting pregnant than those who were distinctly morning or evening chronotypes.
Of course, we are not all so lucky to be able to sleep according to our tendency, with work schedules and children often getting in the way. Even if you have to adjust our natural tendency, there are habits you can adopt and things you must avoid to enhance your circadian rhythm for better sleep.
How Circadian Rhythms Get Disrupted And What To Do To Fix Them
There are both simple and complex ways sleep can be disrupted. The simple issues are easier to fix and include the following:
• Caffeine, alcohol, and other stimulants. Avoid them if they’re a problem!
• Too much light in your bedroom. Get blackout curtains to block light from outside and cover or unplug electronics that emit light.
• Exposure to Wi-Fi and other dirty electricity sources such as cell phones in your bedroom. Turn them off or unplug them.
• Exposure to computer, TV, or cell phone screens at night before bed because they decrease melatonin production. Install f.lux
on your devices to automatically dim screens after sunset and avoid using devices for at least an hour before bedtime.
• Warm temperatures at night and cold temperatures during the day inhibit circadian rhythms. Whenever possible opt for cool at night and warm during the day by turning off air conditioning when it’s unnecessary.
The more complex circadian disruptors have to do with hormonal and metabolic imbalances that cause your body to not function as it should.
If it’s broken, sleep aids and quick fixes aren’t going to help you reset your clock for good sleep. Here are five complex issues that disrupt circadian rhythms and what you can do to fix them.
#1: Eating at Night
People who regularly eat at night will inhibit sleep because it alters balance of the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, which affect melatonin, insulin, and thyroid function.
Eating a large amount of calories at night goes against your circadian rhythm and can cause you to become insensitive to the hormone leptin if done chronically.
Consider what happens if you have a balanced circadian clock:
1) You’d eat dinner and a few hours later insulin will fall.
2) Decreasing insulin triggers the hormone leptin to be released to inhibit hunger when you go to bed.
3) Leptin appears to cause thyroid hormone release to keep you warm and burn stored fat during the night. This process is balanced with melatonin release, which induces sleep.
If you eat at night, the entire system becomes muddled because hormone balance gets out of whack:
1) You’ll have trouble sleeping.,
2) The next day, your lack of sleep decreases insulin sensitivity and causes a pre-diabetic situation in which you have much lower glucose tolerance.
3) Insulin will be elevated and you will be less sensitive to leptin.
4) You will be hungrier because the hormone ghrelin will be elevated. You’ll particularly crave foods higher in sugar due to the poor blood sugar state.
5) You’ll have less desire to by active, leading you to burn fewer calories on the days after short sleep.
How To Fix It: First, identify a meal frequency that works for you and allows you to avoid eating the bulk of your calories at night. Whether you choose two, three, five, or six meals a day, you’ve got to get your eating done a few hours before bed. If you’re shooting for a 10 pm bedtime, that means you need to finish eating by 7 or 7:30 pm.
Second, eating breakfast in the morning has been shown to improve circadian rhythms. A normal rhythm causes an increase in the hunger hormone ghrelin in the morning. Eating even a small breakfast is the ideal response to morning hunger, which can set your rhythm up for the day.
Third, if you are hungry before bed and worry it will keep you from sleeping, consuming “good” fat such as coconut oil may help because it won’t spike insulin or affect leptin release.
#2: Fasting and Calorie Restriction
Although there are benefits to fasting and calorie restriction such as decreased body fat and longevity, both have been found to alter circadian rhythms and impede sleep because they activate neurons in the brain that keep you alert and awake.
Evolutionarily it makes sense because when our hunter-gatherer ancestors lacked food, they needed enhanced mental clarity and brain function to drive activity and help them find food. However, it’s unlikely they were in a fasting state on a regular basis, as many people who practice fasting are.
Who knows? Our ancestors may have experienced poor sleep due to a lack of calories or fasting as well, but their main “job” was to find food, whereas our main “job” is to perform at work or on the athletic field, while effectively doing childcare and completing a list of other responsibilities.
How To Fix It: If fasting works for you, have at it. If not, identify a meal frequency that supports your needs. Consider eating protein for breakfast and getting the bulk of calories during daylight hours.
#3: Irregular Social Interaction
Research shows that circadian rhythms are affected by when we interact with other humans. Having social interactions and viewing human faces in the evening (such as on TV) has been found to increase wakefulness and inhibit sleep.
On the other hand, having social interactions during the day is known to improve sleep, whereas people who are isolated during daytime experience altered clocks. This makes sense evolutionarily because our ancestors needed to cooperate and have fruitful social interactions during daylight in order to survive. After dark, social interactions were likely limited.
How To Fix It: Plan your social activity during the day (at lunch or during breaks at work, for example) or as early as possible in the evening. Avoid nighttime TV viewing completely, or at the very least, of faces—opt for animal shows or sports, for instance.
If you’re isolated during the day due to working at home or a desk job, figure out a way to get regular social activity in the morning and during daylight hours. Workout with a partner, go walking with a friend, and eat lunch with others instead of at your desk.
#4: Too Few Carbs
Extremely low-carb eating (less than 100 grams a day, for example) may alter circadian rhythms because it can decrease thyroid function. It’s well known that glucose is necessary for the conversion of T4 thyroid hormone into the active T3 form, which allows the thyroid to effectively regulate body temperature—a key component to your circadian clock.
In the absence of carbs, the body can produce glucose in the liver from protein; however, this process can become taxed over time, leading to poor thyroid function.
In addition, a diet that is too low in carbs will lead to low insulin, whereas a limited carb diet will increase insulin sensitivity, but allow for enhanced insulin rhythm for improved sleep.
Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that aids sleep and improves mood is also affected by diets too low in carbs. Naturally, you still want to keep carbs limited, but eat according to your activity needs.
How To Fix It: Carb needs vary greatly based on goals, physical activity levels, and personal preference. If you’re eating a very low-carb diet, consider increasing your intake of starchy vegetables and fruit to boost your carb totals. No need to add grains if this is not your preference.
#5: Too Much or Too Little Exercise. Or Training at the Wrong Time
Intense exercise in the evening has been found to suppress melatonin and may elevate cortisol, both of which can inhibit sleep. Although nighttime may be a better time for physical performance than first thing in the morning (since body temperature is higher and coordination is enhanced), it’s not ideal. Late afternoon or early evening are preferred workout times from a performance and protein synthesis standpoint.
In addition, too much exercise, such as daily high-intensity training, chronic long and intense cardio, or regular two-a-days, may lead to elevated inflammation and hormone imbalance.
For example, IL-6 is an inflammatory factor, which can improve muscle development at certain levels. However, it can become chronically elevated in response to poor sleep and physical stress, further inhibiting sleep in a cyclical fashion.
An altered cortisol curve can also compromise circadian rhythms. Normally, you should have a large spike in cortisol first thing in the morning and then experience a gradual decrease to reach low levels in the evening. However, both physical and mental stress will cause cortisol to be elevated all day long, thereby affecting other hormones and the behaviors they regulate.
A common scenario in people with high-stress jobs is they don’t manage to eat adequately during the day, and cortisol is elevated for the duration, leading to intense cravings for pleasurable “comfort” foods. This often leads to evening snacking, altering leptin, ghrelin, and melatonin, and sending them down the cruel road of altered circadian rhythms and hormone imbalance.
A sedentary lifestyle can also lead to poor sleep, though possibly not as radically as too much exercise. There’s not much evidence on how sedentaryism influences circadian rhythms but it’s abysmally bad for health making it reasonable to suggest that if you can’t sleep you need to get active.
How To Fix It: Keep your workouts to an hour or less and avoid doing high-intensity exercise too frequently. Avoid long-duration exercise and two-a-days if sleep is a problem.
Be aware that the benefits of exercise are not correlated with performance meaning that the optimal amount of exercise for health and circadian rhythm enhancement is much less than that required for optimal performance.
Therefore, if you’re an athlete and need to perform, an hour or less of training a day isn’t going to cut it, so you’ll have to focus on other methods to improve sleep and enhance your circadian clock.
We’ll post an article on tips for athletes to get better sleep in a few weeks, so keep your eyes open.