Americans are obsessed with sleep. We use technology to track our sleep, invest in smart mattresses, and even travel to sleep retreats. By 2024, the “sleep economy” is estimated to be a $585 billion dollar industry. And yet, most of us still aren’t getting enough of it. Despite this cultural obsession with sleep, 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. battle insomnia. There’s even been a disturbing rise in orthosomnia, a condition where tracking sleep becomes so obsessive it actually results in more sleep disturbances.
Nearly every system in your body runs off of an internal clock, or circadian rhythm. Most of us are familiar with the sleep-wake cycle, but this internal clock also regulates our mood, digestion, metabolism and reproductive cycles. A recent study found that even fat cells have circadian rhythms, meaning that our metabolism changes throughout the day and night. In the not too distant past, we worked and slept with the sun. Today, our fast paced lifestyles are mismatched with these natural rhythms. We spend hours staring at screens, work well into the night, and reach for snacks when we really should be sleeping. This not only has an impact on our health but our overall wellbeing.
While agonizing over sleep is certainly not helpful, sleep impacts just about every cell in your body. When your internal clock is well balanced, it helps to maintain healthy heart function, optimize mental clarity, moods, immunity, and moderates stress levels. Out of sync circadian rhythms are thought to be associated with the rise in conditions like diabetes, dementia, depression, obesity and some cancers. Fortunately, small, simple changes to your daily routine can help to reset your circadian rhythm and get you falling asleep and staying asleep more easily.
Get outside. There is a lot of emphasis these days on avoiding stimulating blue light at night. And while we know this is important, we tend to underestimate the importance of increasing our exposure to natural light throughout the day. Just 15-20 minutes of exposure to sunlight in the morning can have a profound impact on sleep quality. Sunlight stimulates the pineal gland in your brain, helping to reset the body’s natural circadian rhythm, and boosting your body’s production of melatonin. So skip your morning phone session and take your morning routine outside to energize your body during the day and rest better at night. The good news is these shifts in our circadian clocks happen more quickly than we think. A recent study found that camping for just two days was enough to shift the rise in melatonin and helped participants fall asleep almost 2 hours earlier than their non-camping counterparts.
Incorporate some form of exercise every day. As it turns out, a certain level of fitness is necessary to be a good sleeper. So exercising one day won’t necessarily help you sleep better that night, but consistent daily exercise is associated with better sleep quality and duration. Starting your day with 5-10 minutes of HIIT exercise first thing in the morning is a powerful way to boost your morning cortisol and feel more energized all day long. Even better, if you can take your exercise routine outside in the mornings. By exercising in nature a few days a week you get the added benefits of improved vitamin D levels, more balanced circadian rhythms, and a mood boost!
Don’t eat when you should be sleeping. There’s a lot of research going on about circadian fasting, or eating during certain time periods. While I don’t believe time restricted eating is beneficial for everyone, there certainly is a lot of value in allowing at least 12 hours between your last meal in the evening and your first meal in the morning. Wakefulness and sleepiness are associated with the timing of digestion and metabolism so when you eat does impact your internal clock. Researchers have even found that fasting for a period of time can help your body more quickly adapt to new time zones. Sleep is your body’s time to rest and repair, not to do the work of digestion so try to allow at least 2-3 hours between dinner and bedtime.
Set an alarm for bedtime. Most of us are used to setting an alarm to wake up in the morning, but we don’t place the same priority on getting into bed at night. But we humans are creatures of habit. Our bodies love predictability so support your natural rhythms by going to bed and waking up at the same time daily. This consistency trains your body to sleep more soundly and wake feeling more energized. The more regular your sleep, the more regular your circadian rhythms and the more regular your circadian rhythms the better you sleep!
Keep tech out of the bedroom. Try setting up a sleep bed station. Ariana Huffington has become a powerful voice advocating for the importance of rest. She recommends putting your phone to sleep in its own bed as a part of your nighttime ritual. If you can’t keep your phone out of your bedroom entirely, try putting it on airplane mode to avoid exposure to EMF radiation, and no using your Fitbit to track sleep. For most people it just creates more anxiety. And the last thing we need is more anxiety surrounding sleep.
Incorporating a few of these strategies will start to reset your internal clock, make sleep feel like less of an illusion and get your body back to functioning more optimally in no time.