MARCH IS NATIONAL SLEEP AWARENESS MONTH
[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]
With the return of light following the time change, and this week's vernal equinox (which happens at 11:15am on Tuesday, March 20 here in Auburn), it's worth noting that our sleep-wake cycles depend upon our brains to process light to keep our rhythms on track.
What is sometimes overlooked, however, is the importance of our circadian system to do more than just manage sleep and waking schedules.
THE CIRCADIAN SYSTEM
Did you know that there are multiple tiny "clocks" housed in our organs, tissues, and cells which work together to keep our bodies in balance? This balance is known as homeostasis and our body and brain work constantly to achieve it.
These "timekeepers" are part of that effort; they serve the main body clock, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN, which is the main operator of our circadian rhythms. You can't see it; it's buried deep in the brain, but it's working nonstop all the same to make sure every part of your body is working to maintain healthy homeostasis.
When the SCN is in proper working order, we function normally. From a sleep standpoint, it means we fall asleep at around the right time at night and rise at around the right time in the morning. We don't find ourselves drowsy or fatigued during the day.
In addition, our bodies at nighttime switch to a separate "schedule" that slows down certain processes such as digestion. This is why we don't (or shouldn't) typically need to use the restroom in the middle of the night.
This is also one of the reasons why exercising at night is not helpful from a circadian perspective: exercise elevates the core body temperature, which should be dipping in the evening, not rising. And exercise at night also releases hormones into the blood that keep us alert and awake when what we really need to be doing is relaxing and letting go of the day's demands for a night of good sleep.
When the SCN is prevented in its effort to keep the body's main rhythms entrained to the Earth's natural light-dark cycles, this leads to "asynchrony" of all of our clocks. Opportunities for illness to set in and risks for injury are one result.
We risk "shifting" our rhythms when we change our clocks in the spring and fall. That makes us all a little more vulnerable to health problems, though the shifting, fortunately, is only temporary as we adjust.
But other things can lead to similar, long-term shifts, such as working night or graveyard shifts, the use of medications which may disrupt the circadian system, and untreated medical problems such as sleep disorders, pain disorders, and other kinds of issues that disrupt sleep or cause daytime fatigue.
Ongoing body-clock "asynchrony" has been associated with the development of chronic illness over time, as well as a reduced quality of life.
These circadian shifts may not be avoidable (in the event your work requires you to be up all night, for instance, or you are a parent raising very young children). But neither should these be imbalances be dismissed. Replacing lost sleep and addressing other barriers to a synchronized circadian system are possible.
Here are just some of the different chronic conditions which research shows can result from an imbalance in one's circadian rhythms:
- Alzheimer's disease
- Crohn's disease
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- High blood pressure
- Huntington disease
- Immune system weakness
- Infertility (male and female)
- Irritable bowl syndrome
- Kidney disease
- Liver disorders
- "Low T" (shortages in testosterone levels)
- Metabolic disorders
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson's disease
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Sexual dysfunction
- Traumatic brain injury (can lead to circadian asynchrony)
If you've recently wondered whether you rhythms are out of whack (because of the recent time change, or in general), think about what kinds of health issues you might be experiencing. This may indicate you need to reset your circadian rhythms.
RESETTING YOUR RHYTHMS
Spring brings more sunshine and renewed energy to find ways to achieve this.
- Sometimes it's simply a matter of practicing better sleep hygiene (sticking to a healthy and consistent sleep-wake schedule, exercising in the morning, and getting natural light exposure the moment you wake up).
- Camping or other outdoor pursuits where you are predominantly outside for a couple of days can be good for resetting your rhythms.
- More applied efforts include cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and sleep restriction therapy, for those who have severely shifted their rhythms, such as those with circadian rhythm sleep disorders (advanced sleep phase disorder, delayed sleep phase disorder, shift work disorder, jet lag disorder, or non-24 sleep-wake disorder).