Are you one of those people who wishes the work day started 11 a.m. so you can go to bed late and sleep in? Staying up late keeps you caught up with David Letterman but puts you at odds with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. Humans aren’t designed much differently than other animals when it comes to sleeping and waking—our internal clocks are set to the rising and setting of the sun.
This cycle is called the circadian rhythm and it affects more than when we wake up and go to bed. The circadian rhythm plays a role in hormone function, mood, immunity, and brain function. One way scientists have learned about the importance of the circadian rhythm is by studying the health of night shift workers, who have a higher risk of health disorders because of their disordered circadian rhythm.
Studies show early risers tend to be slimmer, happier, and healthier. Research also shows they earn better grades in college, are more organized and proactive in life, more physically active, and they enjoy deeper sleep. Early risers also report enjoying the time in the morning to exercise, meditate, or work uninterrupted.
Taking care of your circadian rhythm also promotes better brain health. The area of the brain that governs circadian rhythm—the hippocampus—also governs our short-term memory. The hippocampus is the first area of the brain to degenerate in dementia. In fact, sleep disorders are being recognized as an early sign of dementia in seniors.
Deciding to become an early bird when you’re used to being a night owl can be tough at first, especially since genetics play a role. But here are some tips from the research that can help you reset your body’s clock.
- Go camping for a week. Recent research has shown that sleeping outdoors for a week without the use of electric lights (camp fire only) put every study participant on a sleep schedule in synch with the sun’s, regardless of whether they were a night person or a morning person. Also, all electronic devices were banned for the week.
- Exercise discipline. Many people stay up late to watch their favorite TV shows or surf the web. Record TV shows, rearrange your schedule, reward yourself for compliance, or do whatever else it takes to get yourself to bed earlier. You also need to get up at the same time every morning, including weekends. Otherwise you throw off your rhythm.
- Expose yourself to sunlight first thing and during the day. The body takes its cues from nature, so exposing yourself to sunlight can help reset your clock. Get out in the sunlight first thing in the morning for at least 20 minutes and then on your breaks during the day. You can also use a full spectrum light box to simulate morning sun.
- Minimize exposure to light after dusk. To contrast with daytime sun, you need to mimic the outdoor world by minimizing your exposure to light in the evening. Ideally this would include avoiding your computer, tablets, smart phones, and television, all of which emit sleep-sabotaging blue light. A more flexible option is to wear special glasses that block blue lights, use light bulbs that do not have blue lights, and install a F.lux program on your computer that adapts the color of your screen to the time of the day so it is pinker in the evening.
- Exercise intensely first thing in the morning. In his book Why Isn’t My Brain Working? Datis Kharrazian explains how exercising at your maximum heart rate for even just a few minutes can help you re-establish your rhythms so you’re more alert in the morning. You can do this through jumping jacks, sprinting, push ups, jump squats, or other activities that get you out of breath. You need to do this within a half hour of waking. You can do your regular workout later in the day—exercise is another way to establish a healthy rhythm.
These are just a few ways you can help nudge yourself to waking up and going to bed earlier. For advice on nutritional support to help regulate your sleep-wake cycle, contact my office.
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