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How to Fix a Disrupted Circadian Rhythm

Feeling the ill effects of winter, I shifted my sleep schedule so that I could wake up earlier and make the most of the limited sunlight.


Most of us go to sleep and wake up in regular cycles. Similarly, most of us feel hungry around certain parts of the day. These physiological processes that seem to have daily cycles are largely governed by an internal clock, or circadian clock, to create a circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms are physiological activities, such as sleeping, eating, hormone release, body temperature, tissue repair, metabolism, and alertness that cycle approximately every 24 hours.

What Factors Can Alter Your Circadian Rhythm?

Although your circadian clock are generated internally, it responds strongly to changes in amount of daily light exposure. This also ties in with seasonal changes, as days are usually shorter in wintertime. Your internal clock adjusts to your daily habits—shift workers and college students are most susceptible to these changes.

For example, if you go to bed late every night even if you feel tired much earlier than that, with time, you will notice that you won’t get tired as early anymore. You will naturally be able to stay up later. Similarly, if you force yourself to wake up early in the morning even if you feel extremely sleepy, over time, you'll be able to wake up early with no problem.

Although the effect isn't as strong as amount of light exposure, according to a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Physiology, daily exercise habits can also affect circadian rhythms.

Common Circadian Rhythm Disorders

  1. Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase: Go to sleep later and wake up later. This is common in young adults who stay up late to study or work, and sleep in in the morning.
  2. Advanced Sleep-Wake Phase: Go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier. This is common with older populations, and with people who want to catch up on work or get in some exercise before their day starts.
  3. Irregular Sleep-Wake Rhythm: No defined sleep-wake pattern. These people have no set "sleep time," and can only accumulate their total sleep time through intermittent nap sessions.
  4. Jet Lag: Temporary shift in sleep-wake phase. When crossing multiple time zones, you may "lose" or "gain" time. For instance, if you're traveling from California to New York, it may be 7 AM in the east coast when you get there, but you're still on west coast time, and you feel like it's still 4 AM. You'll need time to adjust to this new schedule.
  5. Shift Work Disorder: Work when most people are asleep. The amount of light you're exposed to is increased, likely decreasing the amount of time you can sleep each day. This leads to constant tiredness

A disrupted circadian rhythm can affect both your physical and mental health. That is why it's important to fix it. But what can you do to fix a disrupted circadian rhythm?

How I Reset My Disturbed Circadian Rhythm

I never understood how important a circadian rhythm can be for my mood and health in general. I used to experience the effects of a changed rhythm every winter. As the days began to shorten, I would start feeling more tired; I would oversleep, take naps at unusual times, and just feel down, anxious, and unmotivated. My sleep routine was erratic, and so were my energy levels. I used to think that this was normal and that I couldn't do anything about it.

Over time, I learned that to combat this, I had to create a strict sleep routine. I started waking up early and going to bed early—at the same time almost every day. In less than two weeks, my mood and my energy levels were back to normal. It's important to realize that in winter there is less sunlight, and we should try to wake up earlier in order to catch more of it because our body's natural time for being awake is when the sun is up.

How to Maintain a Regular Circadian Rhythm

Here are some general tips on how to keep internal clock working as it should.

  1. Get Some Sunlight
  2. Go to Bed On Time
  3. Avoid Bright Lights Before Bed
  4. Be Active During the Day
  5. Don't Oversleep
  6. Avoid Taking Midday Naps
  7. Have Consistent Mealtimes
  8. Avoid Drinking Excess Caffeine and Alcohol
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1. Get Some Sunlight (Especially in Winter)

Bright light (sunlight) tells your body it should be awake. Our skin and eyes have photoreceptors that send signals to the brain that it’s time to be alert and awake. If you expose yourself to sunlight during the day (especially in winter), you'll be more awake during the day and fall asleep more easily at night because melatonin release occurs sooner.

2. Go to Bed On Time

Having a consistent sleep and wake routine is very important for maintaining a regular circadian rhythm. Try to be disciplined about when you go to sleep and when you wake up. If it’s difficult for you to fall asleep at night, try waking up earlier, even if it is hard in the beginning. With time, your body will adjust to this new schedule.


3. Avoid Bright Lights Before Bed

As mentioned above bright light signals to your brain to be awake. Your TV and computer screen also emit blue light that negatively affects your sleep. So avoid using your computer, phone, or TV a few hours before going to bed. If you must use them, try to set the brightness to a lower level or use filters (e.g night shift mode) to reduce the amount of blue light.

4. Be Active During the Day

Daytime physical activity and exercise can have a positive effect on your circadian rhythm and your cardiovascular health. Exercise makes it easier for you to fall and stay asleep at night and also reduces anxiety and stress.

5. Don’t Oversleep

The shorter, colder days, less sunlight, and gray skies in the winter understandably make a lot of people feel like they have a lack energy. But it's important to, again, maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule. Sleeping in can throw off your sleep schedule, pushing your bedtime later into the night. If you feel overly sleepy in the winter, try taking a walk outside, or get a light workout in. This can lift your mood and boost your energy during the day.


6. Avoid Taking Midday Naps

It might make sense to take a quick nap when the after-lunch grogginess gets to you, but naps can make it more difficult for you to fall asleep at night. Because you've already rested during the day, you'll likely feel more awake around your normal bedtime. This will throw off your sleep schedule and can carry over to subsequent days as well.

That being said, this isn’t the case for everyone. Some people can enjoy daytime naps and still go to sleep at their usual time. Lucky them! But if you are trying to go to bed earlier, it might be wise to avoid napping.

7. Have Consistent Mealtimes

The timing of when you eat as well as the quantity of food you eat can also have an impact on your circadian rhythm and sleep patterns. Besides having a regular bedtime, pay attention to your mealtimes as well. In both cases, day-to-day consistency is key. Don’t skip breakfast, and don’t eat a lot late at night.

8. Avoid Drinking Excess Caffeine and Alcohol

Caffeine and alcohol can greatly disrupt your sleep, which disrupts your circadian rhythm as well. Avoid drinking caffeinated drinks—particularly within six hours before bed. Although having a glass of wine can make you feel relaxed and help you fall asleep more easily, the alcohol can work against you by reducing rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is widely considered the most restorative phase of sleep.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


RTalloni on August 31, 2018:

Just taking the time to think about the need to follow these tips is a good start but you've provided an easy guide to help people regain a good sleep/wake schedule.

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