The next aspect of sleep and insomnia I want to share with you is about circadian rhythms. What exactly is a circadian rhythm, you may ask? A circadian rhythm is approximately a 24-hour cycle that governs the physiological processes of living things.
The circadian rhythm, while it influences and is responsible for many things throughout day, is mainly known for it’s influence on the sleep/wake cycle. It regulates our feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day.
Circadian rhythms are internally driven, however, we rely on environmental cues to keep us on track. I say this because the circadian rhythm actually runs a little longer than 24 hours so things like sunlight, temperature, regular bedtimes/wake times, and meal times help us manage the drift of our circadian rhythm and stick to our schedule.
But what if we don’t stick to a regular schedule, meaning regular bedtimes/wake times and meal times? Well, then we can cause ourselves some problems. Some people with insomnia have a habit of varying their sleep and wake times. I hear this all the time in my clinical practice… “Well I couldn’t sleep last night so I let myself sleep-in.” “I was up in the middle of the night so I slept 2 hours later.” “I didn’t sleep well so I took a nap and then I couldn’t fall asleep at night.” Several nights of these types of wacky sleep schedules can throw off your circadian rhythm and make an insomnia problem even worse.
So what do we do? Well it isn’t the most popular answer, but we establish a sleep/wake schedule, and we stick to it 7-days a week.
Wait. What?? 7-days a week, even on the weekends? Yes even on the weekends. We are all familiar with sleeping in on the weekends, but when we do this we expose ourselves to social jet lag. The feeling is not dissimilar from regular jet lag, however we do not have the fun memories of a great trip to California or Costa Rica. Social jet lag is what occurs when we change our sleep schedules over the weekend. In order to avoid that dragging tired feeling, it is best to stick to your sleep/wake schedule everyday. If you must sleep-in on the weekend make sure it is no more than one hour later than your usual wake time.
But how can I establish a regular sleep/wake schedule when I cannot control when I fall asleep?? Good question! We start by establishing a wake time and sticking to it.
But what if I can not fall asleep, or I am up for hours in the middle of the night? Well you still get up at the same time in the morning.
We cannot control the exact time that you fall asleep, but we can control our wake times by using an alarm clock. You set your alarm clock and get up at the same time every morning regardless of how you slept the night before.
Oh and did I mention, NO NAPS!! Again this is to get our circadian rhythm into a good, pun intended, rhythm. Plus if you take a nap you are deflating your balloon!! If you do not know what I mean by “your balloon” visit my previous blog on adenosine. So no naps and wake up at the same time everyday. Eventually you will start to establish a regular sleep time and circadian rhythm.
So, what about night owls and morning larks? People are unique in their circadian rhythms and different people reach their peak level of alertness and performance at different times of the day. Night owls function best at night, while morning larks are at their best in the morning. Most of us, however, fall in the “normal” range. Yes, I am talking about the bell curve, true night owls and morning larks are outliers, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle, meaning there is not a whole lot of variability in our peak times of alertness as a people.
Again, if we want good/quality sleep, and who doesn’t right? Stick to a regular sleep/wake schedule as nearly to every day as you possibly can. Until next time :) Dr. B
Perl, J. (1993). Sleep Right in Five Nights: A clear and effective guide for conquering insomnia. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Danforth, M. (2018). Treating Insomnia: Evidence-based strategies to help your clients sleep. Presentation, New Jersey.