How to Reset Your Internal Sleep Clock
Many people can attest to how difficult it is to fix an interrupted sleep schedule. School, work, and traveling are all potential disturbances of one’s sleep routine. Sleep routines are so easily interrupted, but are much harder to reset. This struggle to re-regulate your sleep routine stems from how intrinsic they are to our bodies. Our sleep is regulated by our Suprachiasmatic Nuclei (SCN), also known as the body’s internal sleep clock. So, when trying to readjust your broken sleep schedule, you must reset this internal sleep clock. Although not easy, there are steps you can take in order to achieve this.
One’s sleep routine can be thrown off track due to a range of external factors. Things like work, school, or a busy schedule can conflict with our sleep.
Understanding Your Internal Sleep Clock
Every individual has an internal sleep clock that regulates their sleep schedule. However, your sleep clock is not the only internal clock your body relies on. You might be surprised to learn that our bodies and bodily processes are dictated by many internal clocks known as circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms refer to the 24-hour cycle in which your bodily processes function and adhere to. The cells in our bodies are programmed to follow this cycle to appropriately control body temperature, appetite, and energy levels throughout the 24 hour period. Your circadian rhythms are actually coordinated by the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) in the hypothalamus. This cluster of 20,000 nerve cells coordinates and synchronizes all the different circadian rhythms, sending commands to activate the pathways of the various cycles so your body can function properly. The most recognized circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle.
In the case of the sleep-wake cycle, the SCN signals wakefulness and tiredness through stimulus from external cues such as light. The SCN takes cues from structures in the eyes, like the retinal ganglion cells, to detect the 24-hour cycle of lightness and darkness. These cells relay that information to the SCN so it can react accordingly. In the absence of light, the SCN prompts the pineal gland to produce melatonin, which makes the body drowsy and ready to sleep. In the presence of light, melatonin production ceases. These cellular functions help align your sleep-wake cycle with day and night, which is why it is so important to monitor how much your brain is stimulated before you go to bed.
Problems With Your Sleeping Schedule
Issues with your internal sleep clock arise when the SCN receives contradictory information and can cause our sleep rhythms to become desynchronized with day and night. As mentioned earlier, one’s sleep routine can be thrown off track due to a range of external factors. Things like work, school, or a busy schedule can conflict with our sleep. Habitual conflicts with sleep may develop an irregular sleep-wake cycle. Anything that significantly interferes with this cycle is considered an external circadian rhythm disorder.
On the other hand, there are also intrinsic circadian rhythm disorders. People with these disorders have internal sleep clocks that naturally misalign with the day and night model. The advanced sleep-wake phase disorder, the delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, and the non-24-hour sleep wake disorder are all examples of sleep disorders that don’t align with the natural circadian rhythm.
Keeping this in mind, everyone has their own unique sleeping habits and some people are predisposed to either earlier or later sleep-wake times. Our sleep-wake cycles are dependent on a combination of genetics, behavior, and environmental factors. A person’s unique sleeping pattern is known as a chronotype. Morning-type chronotypes have an internal sleep clock that makes it difficult to sleep in, but evening-type chronotypes find it hard to go to bed early.
Thankfully, if you find that your sleep-wake cycle truly does not work for you and your schedule, there are steps you can take to regulate your sleep clock.
Resetting Your Sleep Clock
Having a good sleep schedule is very important to one’s health. Lacking a good sleep schedule can result in sleep deprivation, social jetlag, and depression and can have a drastic effect on one’s health. So, if you find yourself with a broken sleep clock, try implementing some of these sleep strategies:
- Manipulating the lighting: Our internal sleep clock is essentially reliant upon cues based on light and dark. During the day, you want to expose yourself to natural light, but dim the lights in your own home as the sun goes down. Additionally, avoid electronics before bed because electronics emit blue light, which causes your melatonin production to cease.
- Normalize meal times: Both digestion and metabolism play a role in when you feel tired versus when you feel awake. Research shows that circadian rhythms shift to match food availability. It’s recommended that you wait 12 hours in between breakfast and dinner. Breakfast should be consumed when you wake up, while dinner should be eaten a few hours before you go to bed.
- Pull an all-nighter: This isn’t the first step you want to take but it is effective. That means if you have been going to bed at 5am and waking up at 1pm, you will want to wake up at your regular time (1pm on a Friday maybe) but stay up until 10pm or so the next night (Saturday).
- Gradually shift sleep times: Instead of resorting to drastic measures like an all-nighter, you can gradually go to bed and wake up earlier. For example, let’s say your sleep clock is an hour behind where you want it. Each week, set your bedtime 15 mins earlier. Keep practicing that until you reach your desired bedtime.