In prehistoric times, nobody tried to fall asleep by the blue light of a cell phone.
Unfortunately, modern life, as awesome and convenient as it is, throws a lot at us that can get in the way of a good night’s sleep: Pulling all-nighters, traveling between time zones, not to mention that familiar urge to catch up on every social media feed at that most inopportune time (in the dark, already tucked in bed). These habits end up getting us out of sync, making it more difficult to fall asleep and wake up when we’re supposed to. In other words, all of this throws off our natural circadian rhythm.
That is—the body’s internal clock that helps regulate biological processes; our circadian rhythm is influenced by body temperature, sleep cycles, hormone secretions, as well as external factors like light and darkness.
Other behaviors can throw off our circadian rhythm, including high-intensity workouts late in the day (afternoon sweat sessions are believed to be ideal), and big late-night meals that make the pancreas, liver, and other organs work when they’re usually at rest. And this can lead not only to chronic sleep deprivation, but also stress and even weight gain and obesity.
Whether you’re recovering from a case of jet lag or a tough work week, here’s how to get your internal clock back on track, ASAP.
In a recent study published in Science Translational Magazine, researchers looked at the effects of caffeine on the circadian rhythms of five human subjects. They administered caffeine pills equivalent to a double espresso three hours before bedtime, and then measured the subjects' changes in melatonin over 49 days. Caffeine had about half of the impact that bright light does—a big deal since light is one of the most powerful factors affecting circadian rhythms. To avoid disrupted sleep, try to stop drinking coffee and other caffeinated beverages about six hours before bed.
Permission to eat carbs
Research published in the journal Cell suggests that carbs can play a role in regulating circadian rhythms. According to the research, an insulin rush may activate tiredness—think of that drowsy feeling that comes on after eating a massive meal. Although this goes against Paleo guidelines, eating carb-rich foods like pasta, potatoes, and brown rice for dinner could prime you to get sleepy at a decent hour (just remember to avoid eating too late at night). To make mornings easier, get in the habit of energizing the body by doing the exact opposite—ditch the waffles and sugary cereals and instead break your fast with lean proteins, fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
The body is pretty intuitive, so giving it cues that it’s time to go to bed can go a long way toward training it to count down and count sheep. Create a relaxing bedtime routine: That could mean reading a book (but not on a blue light–emitting e-reader), then mindfully brushing your teeth, washing your face, slipping into PJs, getting a whiff of lavender essential oil, and tucking yourself in.
Showering at night could help relax the muscles, but make it quick—long hot showers can actually raise your core body temperature too much, which can interfere with the body's tendency to initiate sleep. Whatever you do, do it every single night in the same way, in the same order. When life happens and inevitably disrupts the routine, get back to it as soon as possible.
If all else fails, taking natural melatonin supplements can help induce sleep when you want to get to bed. And realigning your circadian rhythm means creating healthy habits when the sun comes up, too—make an effort to get up at the same time every day to maintain a regular sleep schedule. A natural way to make this happen? Avoid sleeping with blackout curtains to let the sunshine in, just like they did in the good old Paleolithic days. You’ll get your (sleep) groove back in no time.
Illustration by Karley Koenig