Our ancestors evolved in an environment in which life was governed by the earth’s natural rhythms, including the cycles of light and dark that characterize day and night. The interaction between our biology and the earth’s light cycles led us to develop a unique system within our bodies, the circadian system. This system produces our circadian rhythms, which play many crucial roles in the maintenance of our health. A growing body of research indicates that disruption of our natural circadian rhythms compromises our health and predisposes us to issues such as elevated stress hormones, lowered immunity, intestinal dysbiosis, and impaired brain function. Over time, health issues such as these may contribute to the development of chronic illnesses. In my own journey of recovery from a chronic illness, Lyme disease, repairing my disrupted circadian rhythm has helped me make significant improvements in my health. In this article, I’d like to share several strategies that have helped me normalize my circadian rhythms and facilitate my recovery from chronic illness. My sincere hope is that these strategies will help you in your healing journey as well!
What are circadian rhythms?
Before diving into the strategies I have used to optimize my circadian rhythms, I’d like to give a brief overview of this somewhat complex topic. Circadian rhythms are the set of biochemical processes within the body that follow an approximately 24-hour schedule and regulate many aspects of our behavior and physiology. Circadian rhythms are produced by genes and proteins that exhibit cyclic activity and are referred to as “body clocks.” The master body clock is a structure in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN); it responds to light and dark cues from the environment and sets the overall rhythm for the body. It also interacts with body clocks in other locations such as the gut and pancreas, which respond to cues such as temperature and nutrients in food. Together, these “clocks” comprise the circadian system, which regulates our sleep/wake cycles, hormone release, and metabolism, among many other processes.
The circadian system becomes disrupted when we provide it with light/dark, food, or temperature cues at inappropriate times in a 24-hour cycle; this throws a wrench into the gears of our body clocks and disrupts the circadian-dependent physiological processes in our bodies. The circadian disruption that ensues increases our stress levels, disrupts gut health and sleep patterns, and impairs our immunity. If we don’t get our circadian rhythms under control, we can inadvertently end up sabotaging our healing efforts. Fortunately, there are lifestyle strategies we can use to normalize circadian rhythm disruption and thus promote healing in our bodies.
Six strategies for promoting healthy circadian rhythms
1. Avoid blue light before bed
Restorative sleep is an essential part of recovering from chronic illness. However, many of us have a bad habit that is undermining our ability to obtain restful sleep – we use blue-light emitting technological devices before bed. The blue light emitted from these devices, such as iPhone and tablets, tells our circadian system that it is daytime and lowers melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep. To ensure that you obtain deep, restorative sleep, power down your electronic devices several hours before bed. You may also want to take this a step further and decrease your exposure to all artificial light before bed, as most lightbulbs emit light in the blue spectrum and are capable of suppressing melatonin production. Wearing blue-light blocking glasses at night is an easy way to reduce your body’s exposure to blue light.
2. Sleep in a dark, cool room
In addition to avoiding blue light before bed, it is crucial that you avoid light exposure during sleep. Light from sources such as streetlights and nightlights can disrupt sleep. I recommend getting a set of blackout shades for your bedroom windows, and unplugging other sources of bright light such as digital alarm clocks and nightlights. Lowering the ambient temperature in your bedroom so that it is cool can also help improve sleep, as temperature is an important cue for the circadian system.
3. Get some sunshine during the day
Reduced exposure to sunlight impairs circadian rhythms. To optimize your circadian rhythm, head outside and get some sunshine every day. In addition to helping your circadian system, this will also help you get a healthy dose of vitamin D, which has its own circadian rhythm-syncing properties! Vitamin D is crucial for optimal immune function, which we need to recover from chronic illness.
4. Avoid eating late at night
Food intake is an important cue for the circadian system, and eating late at night raises insulin and cortisol, which alter circadian rhythms. Finish eating a few hours before bed to allow for the cascade of hormones that promote healthy sleep.
5. Optimize your gut health
Gut issues are common among those of us with chronic illnesses. However, normalizing your circadian rhythms may improve gut health! Emerging research indicates that intestinal cells and gut microbes have their own circadian rhythms that interact with our rhythms; this means that we can improve our gut health by taking care of our circadian system, and vice versa. For example, a high-carbohydrate Standard American Diet has been found to impair gut microbe rhythms and compromise gut health, and chronic sleep disruption alters microbe rhythms and promotes leaky gut and dysbiosis. Conversely, eating an anti-inflammatory, nutrient dense diet and practicing sleep hygiene can normalize gut microbe rhythms and improve gut health. Taking probiotics and avoiding [or strictly limiting] antibiotic use may also help normalize your circadian rhythms by improving the health of your gut microbes.
6. Practice stress reduction
Circadian disruption elevates cortisol, and high cortisol impairs healing. Having a regular stress reduction practice, such as mediation or yoga, is very important for optimizing your circadian rhythms and promoting healing. Since adopting a regular yoga practice, I have found that I experience better sleep and increased alertness during the day, both of which indicate that my circadian rhythms are functioning well!
The process of recovering from a chronic illness can be challenging, and often takes a lot of self-experimentation on the patient’s part. My own experience and self-experimentation has led me to believe that circadian rhythm entrainment is crucial for recovering from chronic illness. Since incorporating these strategies into my own life, I have experienced several major healing breakthroughs. I hope you find these strategies useful, and that they can help you in your own recovery process!
Lindsay Christensen is a health writer and researcher with her B.S. in Biomedical Science and an Emphasis in Nutrition. She is currently pursuing her M.S. in Human Nutrition, with the intention of becoming a Clinical Nutritionist. Lindsay’s passion for natural health and wellness has been driven by her own experience in recovering from a serious chronic illness. She blogs about chronic illness recovery and her nature-inspired approach to nutrition and healthy living on her website, Ascent to Health. In her free time, she can be found outdoors rock climbing, hiking, skiing, and enjoying the beauty and healing power of nature.