SHEDDING LIGHT ON OUR BODY CLOCK
As the nights close in, we need to adjust to the longer nights and darker mornings which can leave us feeling sluggish. Here’s how to fight back...
Many of us under-appreciate how important our body clock is for health and wellbeing. We may identify ourselves as being a ‘morning person’ or a ‘night owl’ but little do we know how this can affect our mood, our weight and even our risk of heart disease!
Our body clock or circadian rhythm governs when we are tired or hungry. It affects our metabolic rate, our body temperature and our hormones or chemical messengers – vital for all sorts of important processes in our body. And whilst it can vary from person to person it largely follows a repeating cycle that lasts around a day. Interestingly though, this rhythm comes from inside us. Even in total darkness our body will follow that same rhythm ...but with the regulating influence of day following night, we are kept to a stricter 24 hour pattern than our inbuilt body clock would naturally follow.
That rhythm is important. Shift workers, forced to adjust to different work and sleep patterns over the long-term, have an increased risk of heart disease, certain cancers and more. And even ‘night-owls,’ forced out of bed to work earlier than their inbuilt body clock is happy with, have a greater risk of depression, diabetes and stroke.
Importantly, too, a disrupted body clock makes it much more difficult to control our weight as it plays havoc with the hormones that regulate our appetite and fullness.
Our daily rhythm used to be kept fairly constant by natural daylight, albeit with some seasonal changes. Now we disrupt it – harsh electricity lights up the streets and our homes as the sun goes down, blue screens shine day and night, caffeine is a staple part of our diet and alarm clocks shock us out of our much-needed sleep.
So, how can we get our body clocks back in rhythm and our lives back in balance?
1. Make the most of natural light. Try to get some early morning sunshine – however weak it is. Walking to work, a short run when you wake up or even just grabbing a coffee outdoors will expose your body to natural light early in the day which then starts your sleep countdown via chemicals like melatonin and adenosine.
2. Avoid caffeine after lunch. It can take over 6 hours to even partially clear your system and it blocks sleep signals.
3. Dim the lights in the home as the sun goes down rather than fooling your body into thinking it’s still daytime.
4. Avoid screens for 2 hours before sleep – reading an iPad before bed can delay the effects of melatonin for several hours. No wonder we lie awake until the early hours.
5. Decide what time you need to wake in the morning and set your alarm for 8 hours before...to remind you to go to bed! Hopefully, that will increase the chance that you will wake up naturally and well-rested. Though, to avoid getting the sack for missing that important work meeting it may be worth keeping your early morning alarm on too, just in case!
Most importantly, aim to get in tune with your own natural body clock, rather than being disrupted by technology, and see how much better you feel.