I am sure that most people reading this blog have at one time or another experienced jet lag, or have been forced to stay awake all night. Not a pleasant feeling.
Our bodies are automatically programmed to a sleep-wake cycle that occurs over a 24 hour time period. This may be referred to as our ‘biological clock’ or more accurately our circadian rhythm.
The word circadian is of Latin origin and ‘circa’ basically means circle or cyclic. This clock is dependent on a few things. One is the pineal gland which is a tiny endocrine gland located deep in the middle of our brains. This gland secretes a hormone called melatonin and is responsible for the modulation of our sleep-week cycle. Another important component of this cycle is light. We are ‘programmed’ to be generally awake during light and asleep in darkness. This is called our sleep-wake cycle and it is normally linked to the activity of the sun, and changes with the seasons. When everything is working well, there is a rhythm of our levels of melatonin, our core body temperature, in conjunction with our sleep-wake cycle. However problems arise when we disrupt this cycle.
In modern society it is fairly commonplace to travel over several time zones. Many people are shift workers and have jobs that demand us to be awake when naturally we should be asleep. Stressful lifestyles can lead to diminished or disrupted sleep. All of these things can mess with our circadian rhythm. This can lead to fatigue (obviously), depression, irritability, impaired cognitive function, and even lowered immunity. (See previous blog on the importance of sleep).
So what can we do to prevent falling out of this natural rhythm? The obvious answer is sleep! More specifically, we do much better if we stick to good sleep habits like: Going to bed and waking up approximately the same times every day. We are creatures of habit. Sleep in the dark, I mean really dark. No ambient light from street lamps, night-lights, alarm clocks etc. This may be difficult to do but can make a big difference in the quality of your sleep. Using a sleep mask may work for this. Avoid stimulants like caffeine especially in the later hours of the day.
If you are traveling through different time zones, it may be helpful to take melatonin. Usually a low dose of about 3mg is all that is needed for most people. This may help, ‘kick’ that cycle back into rhythm. Ask your health practitioner if this is appropriate for you.
Remember that optimum health is about keeping things in balance and getting good quality sleep is a crucial cornerstone to this equation.