Do you desperately need your morning caffeine?

Consider these eye-opening statistics… 70% of American adults get insufficient sleep at least once a month. 50-70 million Americans suffer from sleep or circadian disorders. You may think you just have a hard time falling asleep, but sleep deficit can lead to serious concerns.

If you too suffer from not getting the sleep you need, do you understand why you aren’t getting the right quantity of quality sleep on a consistent basis?

Perhaps you regularly go to bed too late simply trying to get the day’s work done. Perhaps your environment is not conducive to sleeping peacefully. In these cases, you need to take a look at your sleep hygiene.

(See Related: 3 Tips to improve your sleep hygiene for better sleep)

But what if you already practice good sleep hygiene and you still find yourself craving sleep? You may be suffering from a circadian rhythm disorder.

Read on to learn if this could be you.


What is a circadian rhythm?

The body’s master clock is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). It is a bundle of brain cells in the hypothalamus. It acts as the control center or internal metronome for the brain.

Daylight helps calibrate this control center. This is done via a direct connection from the eye to the SCN. The light in the 460-500 nm wavelengths range tells your brain it is day. That is why you always hear to avoid screens of any type late at night, particularly blue light.

(See Related: A save the sky guide: What is light pollution and what you can do about it)

Your master clock helps drive your circadian rhythm. Animals, plants, microbes and even every cell in the body have a circadian rhythm.

The word comes from the Latin circa meaning about or around and dies meaning day, so together meaning around a day. So circadian rhythms are the physical, mental, or behavioral cycles that run on an approximately 24 hour cycle. As our planet rotates on its axis, we evolved to match that cycle. It is kind of like the body’s own tide.

Oddly enough, most people’s circadian rhythms run slightly longer than 24 hours, but adjust with external cues. Those who have exactly 24 hours or slightly shorter cycles are the people, like my husband, that spring out of bed bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and annoying to those of us who do not share the same rhythm.

A circadian rhythm or clock is defined by 2 criteria. It is:

  1. Endogenous which means they are built-in and automatic. They would run all by themselves if you were isolated in a box with no external clues to the outside world.
  2. Entrained which means they are able to synchronize with environmental oscillations like the day-night cycle of Earth. Items such as light, temperature, exercise and food can be used to cue or reset our systems and are called zeitbegers.

While there are genetic components to our circadian rhythms, they also change as we age. Here are things that are part of these rhythms. 

Circadian clock

Circadian clock. Credit: Brisk Walkers

• Sleep-wake cycle

• Oxygen consumption

• Muscle strength. Many records have been set at times when physical strength peaks.

• Body temperature. Falling body temperature is one of the signals telling the body it is time to sleep. Another small drop of body temperature between 2-4 pm could explain siesta or that afternoon sleepiness you feel.

• Hormone levels. Melatonin is secreted from the pineal gland when darkness begins to fall and stops when dawn breaks. Cortisol also follows a rhythmic cycle.


What is a circadian rhythm disorder?

Circadian rhythm disorders are a mismatch between your internal clock and the 24 hour cycle of the Earth or a malfunction of internal clock. These disorders are not to be confused with other sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or narcolepsy.

Symptoms of these disorders show up as sleepiness during the day or insomnia. Because many doctors aren’t trained to recognize these disorders, they can often be misdiagnosed as depression, ADHD, primary insomnia, or other conditions.

Aside from missing a good night’s rest, these disorders influence your entire life. Work or home life can be heavily impacted. Drowsy driving may be a factor in 20% of all serious car accident injuries.

Since the world doesn’t stop turning for us to catch up with it, we are often forced into a typical schedule. This can result in chronic sleep deficit. Chronic deprivation is associated with a variety of maladies including fibromyalgia, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, obesity, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder.

There are several circadian sleep disorders. They are:

• Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder. This is the most common disorder and seen in night owls and teens. When allowed to sleep in it doesn’t cause much of a problem. People with this disorder are alert and productive in the evenings. Unfortunately, they are often labeled as lazy because they often sleep in.

• Advanced sleep-wake phase disorder. This is the opposite of delayed sleep-wake phase disorder when people go sleep and wake quite early.

• Non-24 hour sleep-wake disorder. This is seen in the blind and people who have longer-than-24 hours in their sleep-wake cycle.

• Irregular sleep-wake rhythm. This occurs when people are unable to establish a regular sleep pattern.

• Jet lag. This occurs when you change time zones. It is easier to adjust when traveling eastwards as opposed to westward because it is easier to delay bedtime than to go to bed early.

• Shift worker disorder. This afflicts those who often change shifts or work at night.


What to do?

on a scheduleUnfortunately, there are no true cures. With the exception of jet lag and shift worker disorder which are more situational, circadian rhythm disorders can be chronic lifelong conditions.

However, it may be possible to manage the condition. As always, you should discuss any health concerns and treatment with your doctor.

These treatments include:

• Behavior therapy. This involves adhering to a strict schedule of activities such as regular sleep times, avoiding naps, regular exercise, and light exposure.

• Bright light therapy. Under the guidance of a sleep specialist, high intensity light (10,000 lux) is used to try to “reset” your circadian clock.

• Melatonin. Medicines are not an ideal long-term treatment, but melatonin is a hormone your body naturally produces. Affectionately referred to as the Dracula hormone, it only comes out at night. It signals your body to prepare for sleep.

• Chronotherapy. This involves modifying sleep time forward or backward progressively by 1-2 hours/day.


Wrap up and tuck in

After doing research for this article, I have to say I am wondering if this might apply to me.

I have always needed a lot of sleep. I feel great when I am well-rested. When I am sleep deprived I really suffer. I have problems concentrating and get kind of slap-happy. Because of that, I am pretty strict with my sleep hygiene. However, I still have days when I feel like I am just not getting enough sleep.

Finding all this information has really got me thinking. I think I will need to start paying more attention to the rest of my daily cycle to see if I notice patterns outside of my sleeping.

Do you have the same struggles that I do? Do you have a serious dependency on your coffee to get you through the day? I would love to hear what you do to meet your sleep needs. Send me a note or let me know on my Twitter channel.

Consider yourself lucky if your schedule is well-suited to your sleep needs. Keep it up!

If you found this information helpful, share it with someone you love. Rest well.



Circadian Rhythm Disorders from Cleveland Clinic

Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders from Circadian Sleep Disorders

Circadian Rhythms from UCLA Health

Circadian Rhythms and Exercise – How They Impact Your Body from Brisk Walkers

Circadian Rhythms Fact Sheet from National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Circadian Sleep Disorders Fact Sheet from Circadian Sleep Disorders

Idzikowski, Christopher. Sound Asleep: The Expert Guide to Sleeping Well. London: Watkins Pub., 2013. Print.

National Institutes of Health Sleep Disorders Research Plan from National Center on Sleep Disorders Research

Roenneberg, Till. Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re so Tired. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.

Terman, Michael, and Ian McMahan. Chronotherapy: Resetting Your Inner Clock to Boost Mood, Alertness, and Quality Sleep. New York: Avery, 2012. Print.

Your master body clock and circadian rhythms from Non-24

Wikipedia contributors. “Circadian rhythm.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Jun. 2016. Web. 17 Jun. 2016.