Have you ever caught yourself wondering why we’re naturally more tired in the evening, or why staring at our phone screen at night can cause us to become more awake and disrupt our whole night’s sleep? These phenomena have to do with our body clock – the term used to describe the 24-hour cycle that animals and humans inherently have. Our body clock isn’t only responsible for regulating sleep, but it’s also crucial for processes like hormonal balance, metabolism, and digestion.
In this article, we will explore exactly what is our body clock and why does it matter, how it changes as we age, and which factors can impact it. We also give you some tips on how to change your sleeping schedule and general tips on improving your sleep. Lastly, in our FAQ section, you will find answers to some common questions regarding our body clock.
What Is Our Body Clock?
Also known as the circadian rhythm, our body clock is a 24-hour cycle that helps regulate the essential processes in our body, such as sleep. Our circadian rhythm is controlled by our nervous system and responds to external stimuli, such as light, temperature, food, etc.
Our body is composed of several biological clocks that work in conjunction for our body to function at its best. This amalgamation of bio clocks is regulated by the so-called master clock that’s located in our brain, specifically in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Unsurprisingly, it’s composed of thousands of nerve cells. When we’re exposed to natural or artificial light, the SCN gets a signal, and, as a response, it has a domino effect on our overall body, including processes like sleeping and eating.
What Does the Circadian Rhythm Do?
One of the main tasks of the circadian rhythm is to optimise the different processes that occur in our body during the 24-hour period. Our sleep-wake cycle is a prime example of that – our body thinks it’s time for bed once it gets dark outside, and that it’s time to wake up once it gets light. While our circadian rhythms differ to a slight degree, its disturbance can cause havoc on our overall body.
Our bodies are programmed to become tired in the evening, just as they’re programmed to feel more alert in the morning. However, there are ways to circumvent this natural process of the circadian rhythm, like exposure to artificial light that sends mixed signals to our brains, causing us to think we should be awake and alert even if it’s not an appropriate time for that.
But the circadian rhythm isn’t only responsible for our sleep cycle; it also dictates other crucial activities within our body, such as digestion and our cognitive performance. It also has a direct effect on our temperature levels – for instance, once our body is exposed to sunlight in the morning, our body temperature rises. Another crucial influence of the circadian rhythm is connected to our hormone levels. Similarly to our temperature levels, our circadian rhythm sends a signal to the SCN to pump out more cortisol in the morning – the stress hormone which, in this case, helps us get up and prepares us to face the challenges in our day.
Additionally, the circadian rhythm is involved in complex processes, such as regulating our metabolism and blood sugar levels. Since it’s involved in most of the important processes in our body, it’s important to avoid disrupting it. We will now go over some of the ways our circadian rhythm can be negatively impacted.
What Affects Our Circadian Rhythm?
Even though the circadian rhythm usually follows the natural light-dark cycle, there are a few factors that can impact it, causing it to shift and negatively affect certain areas of our body.
For instance, jet lag is notorious for being disruptive to our natural body clock. When we travel to different time zones, our light-dark cycle shifts, and the SCN receives different signals at different times of the day. Needless to say, our bodies are quick to adjust to that new light-dark cycle, but it can be really disruptive in the short term, and make it hard to adjust to our previous cycle once our trip is over.
Another obvious way our circadian rhythm can be disrupted is by taking up night shifts. If we have to work during the night, the time of day when we’re biologically programmed to sleep, it can cause some severe disturbance in our light-dark cycle and overall bodily function. While it’s important to become aware of how night shifts impact the body clock, sometimes we can’t do anything about it. Many workers are contractually obliged to have a certain number of night shifts during the month, while some are exclusively assigned night shifts. If switching jobs or negotiating different shifts isn’t an option for you, you will have to find a way to work around your body clock and try to minimise the negative effects caused by its disruption.
Some sleep disorders can also negatively impact our circadian rhythm, particularly those disorders that manifest themselves in symptoms like waking up in the middle of the night or being unable to fall asleep at night. Not to mention, some symptoms of certain sleep disorders include being tired during the day despite getting plenty of sleep, which confuses our body clock.
While some of these causes can be controlled by us, such as jet lag, others aren’t so easy to control. If you suspect that a sleep disorder is negatively impacting your circadian rhythm and overall quality of life, we recommend speaking to a professional. They might prescribe you medicine that can help with the symptoms, as well as give you general tips that will help you get your sleep disorder under control.
Differences Between Our Body Clocks
While body clocks react to stimuli and light in the same way, not all body clocks are the same and have the same time frames.
Are you someone who loves waking up early in the morning and seizing the day, or are you someone who does their best work at night and likes staying up late? The phenomenon of night owls and early birds is a clear indication that not every circadian rhythm is the same.
There are some inherent advantages and disadvantages of being a night owl and early bird – for instance, night owls might find it hard to get up in the morning for work or school, while early birds might find it hard to stay up late at night for an exciting party or event.
We understand that these drawbacks can be frustrating for many. While you can make yourself follow a certain sleeping schedule that differs from your natural instincts, we recommend working with instead of against your inclinations and creating a sleeping schedule that contains the best of both worlds. If you’re a night owl, maybe you could stay up during the weekends and work on your creative projects, while early birds can take a long nap during the day if they know they will have to stay up late that evening.
How Our Body Clocks Change as We Age
You know by now that body clocks don’t work the same on every individual, but do they undergo a certain change as we start getting older?
The answer is yes. Just as other processes are affected by our age, so is our body clock. There are several ways ageing affects our body clock, the most notable of which is the time we spend sleeping.
As you know, we don’t sleep the same amount of hours when we’re kids and when we’re adults. Newborns and toddlers require the most amount of sleep, between fifteen and nineteen hours. Kids sleep anywhere between eight and ten hours, while teens require less sleep than kids. Adults should sleep anywhere from seven to nine hours, while elders typically do well with six to seven hours of sleep, although some sleep disorders that come with age make it harder for elders to get the required hours of sleep.
Needless to say, work and family obligations make it harder for adults to get the right amount of sleep. It’s been shown that a large percentage of the population sleeps less hours per night than it’s recommended, which causes many unpleasant symptoms and can even lead to sleep disorders.
When you’re younger, you usually can get away with sleeping less hours and staying up late at night, whereas when you’re older, it starts catching up to you and you’re more likely to notice the negative effects of such habits.
Additionally, as we get older, we’re more prone to leaving our night owl habits behind and waking up earlier. This doesn’t only have to do with our need to sleep for longer, but it also has to do with our work and family obligations. Elders are also naturally more prone to getting up earlier.
Our sleep quality also undergoes some changes while we grow older. It’s believed that the length of our REM sleep cycle – the restorative, deep sleep each one of us gets every night, gets shorter as we grow older, so we spend more time during the night in lighter sleep, which is typically of lower quality.
How to Change Your Sleep Schedule
If your sleep schedule is less than optimal currently, or if you’re a planning a big, long trip in a location that’s in a different time zone than your current location, you might be looking to change your sleep schedule. Here are some tips that can help you do so in a quick and effective way.
One of the most common methods doctors recommend when you’re trying to better your sleep schedule, or you’re trying to improve your overall quality of sleep, is taking melatonin supplements. Melatonin is a hormone that’s naturally occurring in our body and taking melatonin supplements can help immensely when trying to sync your sleep schedule with your life obligations. If you’re unsure about what dose to take or whether you need them in the first place, we recommend visiting a doctor.
Another way you can help your body adjust to your desired sleeping schedule is by scheduling your meals according to your newly acquired sleeping patterns. We all know that you need to wait at least two hours after dinner to go to sleep, which means that if you want to wake up earlier, you’ll need to eat your dinner earlier as well.
You might be tempted to manipulate your consumption of caffeine to help your body adjust to your new sleep cycle, but you have to do it with caution. Consuming caffeine in the morning will help you stay energised if your new sleep cycle is making you tired initially, but consuming it later on in the day can also make it harder for you to fall asleep.
Some strategies, such as taking pills that aren’t prescribed to you or drinking copious amounts of alcohol, might seem like a good solution at first, but they’re far from being an optimal strategy to changing your sleeping schedule and can cause several problems in the long run.
How to Improve Your Sleep
Now that you know some tips that can help you fix your sleep schedule, let’s delve into some general tips that will help you improve your overall quality of sleep.
Be wary of long naps. While they almost always feel good, taking long naps in the middle of the day can seriously disrupt your sleeping schedule and prevent you from falling asleep at your desired time. Instead, opt for shorter power naps in the early afternoon.
Get your exercise in. As long as you don’t exercise too late in the evening, exercising regularly can significantly improve your sleep quality, as well as make you fall asleep faster.
Avoid electronics before bed. As we mentioned earlier, the artificial light that comes from our screens can confuse our bodies into thinking it’s daytime, which, in turn, can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. To give both your eyes and your mind a break, avoid using your phone and computer for at least half an hour before going to bed.
Have a consistent sleeping schedule. Last, but certainly not least, do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time each night so that your circadian rhythm is in order.
Why Is the Body Clock Important?
Our body clock plays an integral role in our sleep and wake cycle, as well as other processes in our body like digestion and metabolism.
What Happens When Your Internal Clock Is Off?
There are several negative effects that come with the disruption of our natural body clocks, such as irregular sleep, sleep disorders, and the inability to fall asleep at night.
Can Your Internal Clock Change?
Our circadian rhythm can be changed and controlled by making certain changes in our day-to-day life such as changing our meal times.
Our body clock is the internal, 24-hour cycle that helps regulate crucial functions and complex processes in our body such as the sleep-wake cycle, eating, and hormonal balance. There are several factors that can impact our body clock in a positive and negative way, such as natural and artificial light, jet lag, and working night shifts. Just like other processes in our body, our body clock changes as we age and certain changes occur regarding our sleep quality and the overall amount of time we spend sleeping. We can change our sleep schedule by carefully using caffeine, changing the timing of our meals, and implementing supplements like melatonin.