All Aboard! Next Stop, Circadian Rhythm Station.
This is the story about a girl who thought she was invincible. A girl who believed she could dodge the need for sleep if the reason was good enough. A girl who, in a time of personal desperation, threw all sense of self-care, health, and wellness out the window as a means of financial survival- and had to pay the price...
This is my dramatic way of saying- this week's blog is going about the importance of rest and sleep as a means of remaining healthy and performing well, and that I'll be drawing from my own personal experiences to help paint the picture. Because who doesn't love a cautionary tale, amiright?
Our month of emotional and mental well-being at work continues to chug along- this week, taking an essential stop at circadian rhythm station. So let's start there, shall we?
If you're feeling weary, sore, unfocused, stressed, sickly, or any combination of these awful symptoms, it may be time to take a look at your circadian rhythm patterns and whether or not you're honoring them. If you're new to this term- fret not! I'm here to tell you!
The circadian rhythm is basically a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It's also known as your sleep/wake cycle.
A part of your hypothalamus (a portion of your brain) controls your circadian rhythm. That said, outside factors like lightness and darkness can also impact it. When it's dark at night, your eyes send a signal to the hypothalamus that it's time to feel tired. Your brain, in turn, sends a message to your body to release melatonin, which makes your body tired. That's why your circadian rhythm tends to coincide with the cycle of daytime and nighttime (and why it's so hard for shift workers to sleep during the day and stay awake at night).
Your circadian rhythm works best when you have regular sleep habits, like going to bed at night and waking up in the morning around the same time from day to day (including weekends!!!). When things get in the way, like jet lag, daylight savings time, or a very exciting sporting event on TV that keeps you up later than your usual bedtime (I see you, NBA finals), you can disrupt your circadian rhythm, which makes you feel out of sorts and can make it harder to pay attention.
Now it's time for me to paint you a picture of my own personal experience of neglecting my circadian rhythm, so you feel emotionally invested in this piece and are compelled to keep reading…
The year was 2017, and I had just moved to a brand new (very expensive) city and was completely fending for myself. I had aspirations of being a writer and a performer, so to supplement those desires, I was working for minimum wage at a very busy coffee shop situated in a very busy hospital. I quickly realized there weren't enough hours in the day to make enough minimum wage to support myself, so I quickly got a job waitressing at an upscale Italian restaurant in the evenings. I thought, "meh, I can pull double duty for a few months. What's the worst that can happen!". I would start work every day at 6 am at the coffee shop, spend an hour commuting across town where I waitressed most nights until midnight, and then commuted an hour home to sleep from about 1 am to 5 am. "A few months" of this quickly turned into 6 months, which very quickly turned into a year.
Here are a few of the symptoms I developed over that (super fun) year: I initially dropped 15 pounds, and then seemingly overnight gained 30. I developed hormonal cystic acne and stopped having regular periods (being a woman is great!). My hair was falling out by the handful, I was super forgetful. I had no patience, no appetite, and the inner monologue in my head was incredibly mean (mostly about myself- but not exclusively). I was too tired to do any of the things that used to bring me joy. Everything felt like work, I stopped seeing my friends, I stopped writing and performing. I just worked. I was merely existing.
I blamed the way I was feeling on everything except my lack of sleep. I thought I was young enough to get away with it, but oddly enough, as it turns out- not sleeping actually ages you prematurely. Huh… who would have guessed!
Once I was finally able to quit my two jobs (shout out to YOU Sleekform), it took well over a year before I started to feel like myself again, and to be honest, I think I'm still working on it.
At the time this was happening, I didn't feel like I had any other option- and sure, maybe I did need to make some sacrifices to survive, but I'm sure I could have given myself a bit more slack than I did. I sincerely hope none of you who are reading this are in a similar situation that I was in. I hope you are all living much more sustainable, enjoyable lifestyles than I was a few years ago. A part of life is that it ebbs and flows through the seasons, and sometimes it feels like we're movin' and groovin' through it effortlessly and rhythmically, and other times, it feels like we're chaotic desperate messes. It's fine. Both are fine. As long we are always rocking a sense of self-awareness and mindfulness (having these will help bring the chaoticness to an end).
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
I'm not sure if this needs to be said, but I want to cover all my bases. There's an infinite amount of research and reports out there that say 7-8 hours is the optimal amount of sleep- to be honest, I love to hang around the 8-8.5 hour mark, but I'm being a bit luxurious. 7 rarely feels like enough for me, although it's more than enough to function normally throughout the day.
How to Get the Most Out Of Your Sleep Time.
Sometimes (a lot of times), life can get in the way of us getting the 8 hours we need, but even so, there are things we can do to make sure the sleep we are getting is the best possible. Here are a few quick things we can all be doing to make sure we get the most out of our precious sleep hours.
- Making your room as dark as possible and relatively cool in temperature
- Avoid your bed throughout the day unless you're sleeping
- Don't eat right before bed- it'll contribute to restlessness.
- Don't exercise right before bed- contrary to what you may believe, exercising will actually energize you instead of tire you out. Exercising releases hormones like adrenaline. So, if you have to exercise in the evening, make it at least three hours to your bedtime.
- Take a hot shower before bed. It's relaxing and can help clear your mind (and clean your bod!).
- Getting sun exposure in the morning
- Journaling your thoughts before bed or reading.
- Avoiding naps after 3 pm
- Avoiding alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and other drugs- no judgment, but this is just a good rule for health in general.
- Dimming house lights and shutting off electronic screens two hours before bedtime, or at least use a blue light filter like f.lux - blue light can trick the brain into thinking that it's day time and throw off your circadian rhythm. That’s why all those blue light glasses are so trendy right now.
- Using a white noise machine- or if you're like me, download a really dry audiobook, tell yourself you need to retain the information, and I assure you- you'll drift off in no time.
Sleep is king! If you're not worshipping and thanking sleep for all it does for your resounding health and performance, it’s time to get on board. Take it from someone who brushed it aside for far too long- a consistent sleep schedule should not be taken for granted. I'd go so far to say that a healthy sleep routine is just as important (if not more important) than a healthy diet and exercise routine. Sleep is often sacrificed before either of those things, but it's important to remember, just because you're asleep does not mean your body is sleeping- it uses your snooze time to carry out some serious "house cleaning" processes that help the mind and body function at maximum efficiency. I liken it to when a Zamboni drives across the rink during a hockey game. It's smoothing out your ice… You know what? I'll keep working on my analogies...
Here are just some of the things that your body takes care of while you're counting sheep:
- Help manage the appetite, thereby aiding weight loss
- Boosts the immune system
- Helps to lay off stress
- Reduce the risk of certain cancers, such as colon and breast cancer.
- Promote memory, focus and proper brain functioning
- Maintain a healthy heart by regulating cholesterol levels and blood pressure
- Reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes, myocardial infarction, and stroke
It's sort of a sick deal if you think about it. You sleep (the best thing), and when you wake up 8 hours later, you’re a superhuman!
Now, I understand that sleep is not something that comes naturally to a lot of us. There are lots of people who suffer from insomnia, and to those of you who do, I'm sorry. I can't draw on personal experience for this specific issue to paint you yet another compelling story, so I'll skip right to it and just provide you with the tips.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI)
The most widely-used method of sleep therapy is CBT, which has been shown effective in many patients after 5 to 8 weeks of treatment- so that's good news!
CBT addresses negative thoughts and behavioral patterns. If you're tossing and turning in the sheets, it's often a mental pattern, such as excessive stress or anxiety that's contributing to the sleep problem. In short, the CBT method involves identifying negative thoughts and beliefs, challenging them, and establishing a more helpful way of thinking.
For example, many people who have traditionally had problems getting to sleep begin worrying and catastrophizing about their inability to get to sleep, which compounds the issue in a snowball effect. CBT allows patients to break out of this harmful routine and create a better relationship with their own minds.
This method is often more applied explicitly to insomnia in what's called Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI). You can read more about this method here.
Breathing directly affects your autonomic nervous system, which directly affects your mental activity. Sometimes, trouble getting to sleep is associated with an over-active "fight or flight" sympathetic nervous system, and breathing is a quick way to put the breaks on this.
There are several aspects of the breath that influence your mind-body system. Here are 3 essential elements of a calming breath that can immediately change how your mental state:
Breathe smoothly: The opposite of this would be jerky, staccato breath. Instead, you'd like there to be a constant flow of air entering and leaving your lungs between pauses.
Breathe rhythmically: What's important here is that your breath has a consistent ratio of inhale to exhale. To further calm yourself, you might try exhaling for longer than the inhale in a fixed ratio of say 4:6. Four seconds of inhalation, followed by 6 seconds of exhalation. When practicing, it can help to use a metronome to find a rhythm at first (free phone apps are available).
Breathe into your belly: So-called "belly breathing" uses your full diaphragm and ensures that you're using your lungs as they are designed. If you'd like to see proper diaphragmatic breathing, just watch how a baby breathes naturally.
If your insomnia is really starting to affect your life, it's time to step away from the blog posts and get yourself to the doctor. As I listed above, the effects of not sleeping can be really detrimental and it’s crucial you start getting consistent night’s sleep as soon as possible.
Do you have your own compelling story to tell about how not sleeping affected your life, or maybe how getting a good night's rest changed your life? I'd love to hear it! Leave your story in the comments below, or as always, send me an email at email@example.com. My inbox is always open (except between the hours of 11 pm and 7 am eastern standard time- when I'm SLEEPING).
Goodnight, Sleekformers. Don't let the bed bugs bite!