Do you feel like you have constant jetlag without the joy of foreign travel? You are not alone! An alarming number of people, these days, feel tired and irritable and struggle to focus.
The reason? Our modern world has us fighting against our biology.
Human beings are designed to function on a wake-sleep pattern known as our circadian rhythm. This cycle lasts around 24 hours and is influenced, primarily, by light and dark.
The problem is our modern environment sees many of us spending too much time inside, using devices and in bright indoor lighting at the wrong times of day. On top of this, we have irregular eating patterns and eat late-night snacks, so our brains and bodies have become confused and our circadian rhythms have been disrupted.
So how do we get our rhythms back on track?
1. Get the light right
Human beings are not designed to live inside. When we exposure our eyes to natural light in the morning, as we would have done in more primitive times, our brains get the signal that it’s daytime. Cortisol is released to wake the body up and get us moving and sleep-cycle hormone melatonin production is supressed, so we no longer feel sleepy.
While bright indoor light in the morning might feel like it wakes your brain up and gets you going, it is nowhere near as effective as sunlight. Normally, indoor lights are around 100 lux whereas, even on a cloudy day outdoors, it is nearer 10,000 lux. And when it is sunny, more like 100,000 lux.
So skip wearing sunglasses on your early morning walks or commute to work. They block the light from reaching the back of your eye which is needed to send the signals to your brain about it being daytime. Save your sunglasses for later in the day.
When it comes to sleep, darkness is one of the key factors that the brain uses to signal that it is time for the body to enter the sleep phase. Melatonin should rise and we ideally move from digesting to resting and the many processes that happen in your body when we are sleeping, including repair and cell regeneration.
At night, your eyes become much more sensitive to light, so even the low lux of indoor lighting, the TV screen and the light from other devices can disrupt the production of melatonin. For better sleep, less light is best.
2. Set your cycle
Sadly, your body doesn’t understand weekends. You will find it much easier to fall asleep and wake up without an alarm clock when you get into the habit of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day of the week. If you are a social butterfly or work irregular hours, this is much more challenging. Any steps you can take to keep to a regular sleep and waking schedule will help.
It is helpful to avoid eating too close to bed if you can, too. This allows your body to focus on digestion during the waking hours and doing its other jobs while you sleep.
Good sleep is the foundation of good health, and after a quality night’s slumber it can be much easier to be motivated to exercise and eat well. Plus your mind ahould feel clearer.
What about shift work?
Managing shift patterns can be tough going. When it comes to sleep, just do your best to get 7-9 hours. If you are coming home from a night shift and will be sleeping in the daytime, you might find it helpful to wear sunglasses on the way home to limit your exposure to light before you try to sleep. A good eye mask may also help.
Where possible, try to keep your eating within a limited window, during your waking hours, rather than too close to when you’ll sleep. If you do mixed shifts, where you only sometimes work nights, try to keep your larger meals to your normal waking hours and eat light meals/snacks, such as fruit, yoghurt and unsalted nuts, through the night. Finding what works will vary from person to person and the nature of the shift pattern and style of work, so it is about finding what works for you. This is a good context to get individualised advice from a Registered Dietitian or Nutritionist, if you are struggling.
Your challenge, this month, is to take action on two things:
- Where possible, aim to get up and go to bed at the same time as often as possible this month. Even at the weekend, aim for 7-9 hours sleep a night.
- Expose your eyes to daylight within the first hour of waking and manage your exposure to light at night. Spend more time outside during the day!
Make it happen
- Set an alarm to remind you to go to bed, as well as one to wake you up in the morning
- Create a consistent nighttime winddown routine that starts at a specific time, eg, shower at 9.15pm, read in bed until 9.45pm
- Remove distractions from your sleeping area, plug your phone in on the other side of the room, or in a different room altogether
- Eat your breakfast or have your first cuppa/coffee outside
- Make walking part of your commute to work, if possible/practical
- Walk to a bus stop that is further away than your normal one, to get extra time outside in the morning
- If you are working from home, why not take a call standing outside, in the morning.
Try our Sleep Better Chart to help you identify other ways you can help find your sleep rhythm and improve the quality of your sleep.
Article sources and references
- Workplace Health and Safety Queenslandhttps://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/16416/shifting-nutrition.pdf