Monday, June 24, 2019

Yet Another Rhythm I Lack: Circadian

Ah, sleep.  The thing I should be doing instead of blogging.

Sleep can be an elusive thing.  Just ask anyone with insomnia.  It's funny in that sleep is one of the few biological factors we need but struggle to control.  If you're hungry, you can go eat.  But if you're tired, you might find yourself lying down only to remain awake, staring at the ceiling, wondering why you can't sleep.

A whole industry has cropped up in response.  Mattress stores abound; sleep aids exist; products you never associated with sleep suddenly want to cash in, claiming they can somehow help insomnia. 

If we can't trust Dr. Vegan, who can we trust?
FYI, I did the math for you.
Most melatonin supplements have about 5 mg.  A pistachio has about 200 micrograms.
So ~25 pistachios, or a handful, is closer to a melatonin supplement.

But what really controls our ability to sleep?  How do our internal clocks dictate when we "should" sleep?

The answer is more complicated than you think.

The term "circadian rhythm" was coined in 1959 by Franz Halberg. Since then, it's a thing your mom says will get messed up if you don't go to bed this instant, young man.

As usual, your mom isn't completely incorrect.  The average person's circadian clock is set to 24 hours and 11 minutes, the equivalent of a solar day, and varies by up to sixteen minutes but rarely more.  That being said, it can be affected by the environment; the modification of the circadian rhythm by light cues is called "entrainment," and the phases of the circadian rhythm can be affected by more than just light.  So going to bed late and waking late can result in grogginess because you're out of a sync with your internal clock.  

And this is where Mom is wrong.  Even if you are operating outside of your circadian rhythm, the rhythm itself maintains a 24-hour-and-11-minute cycle in terms of hormonal releases and metabolic functions.  That's why you feel groggy.  Your pineal gland is releasing melatonin in the middle of the day, trying to reset your insomniatic ass back to a normal schedule that hasn't been butchered by League of Legends and Mountain Dew: Code Red.  


And don't kid yourself about needing "less sleep." You probably need eight hours.  You definitely need at least seven.

The word "need" is easily dismissed by people who claim that they are operating just fine while sleep-deprived.  But missing out on sleep has a whole host of symptoms: .  Like malnutrition in the first world, many people don't realize it's even affecting them.  Feeling tired, cranky, groggy, and needing five Venti cups of coffee to get through the day just seems normal.

But it's not.


Unless you have a wacky circadian clock disorder.  Some people (possibly up to 16%!) have a "delayed phase" sleep disorder, wherein their circadian rhythm ticks by like a u0nder-wound clock, disrupting their typical pattern of sleep.  And delayed phase disorder isn't the only disorder of the circadian clock that exists.  If you have a circadian rhythm that varies by more than an hour from the typical 24 hours and 11 minutes, you might have a non-24-hour rhythm that makes your sleep cycle tick out of sync from everyone else's.  You also might be blind.  70% of blind people experience a non-24-hour rhythm (due to a lack of light cues to help the "clock" set itself), along with people with head trauma and dementia. 

I should probably mention that the "clock" isn't a real clock, or an organ; it's a bundle of neurons in your brain that affect and are in turn affected by a series of molecular interactions and feedback loops in your body.  This is why head trauma and aging can mess up your circadian rhythm.


We've learned a lot about how these interactions dictate sleep by observing the "exception" cases.  In addition to looking at how blind people may experience circadian "drift," we've also looked at people in arctic regions, people in space, and people (or mole rats) who live in total darkness.  The results are interesting.  Some animals have adaptations to maintain their circadian rhythms without light.  (Insects' circadian rhythms are not dependent on light cycles, interestingly enough.)  Some animals' rhythms "turn off" during certain seasons.  Sleep research is a wild new frontier with a lot to learn, because every animal and individual has a different sort of relationship with sleep.  (Giraffes only sleep for two hours a day.  Probably because they look stupid and don't want other animals making fun of them.)

But for all we don't know, we do know a few things.  Like that you need sleep and probably aren't getting enough.


I've made a few posts about diet and the necessity of self-control when it comes to eating healthy and maintaining one's weight.  Sleep, like food, is something we need and something that, despite having a biological component that we don't control, is also something we that is within our power to modulate.  Your only excuse is if you are living in total darkness or currently hunkered down in the arctic circle.  Don't use space as an excuse; even astronauts have found ways to help maintain their circadian rhythms.  It should only take you 10-15 minutes to fall asleep.  If you're having trouble, here's some useful tips for sleep hygiene:
  • Keep your room dark.  Light cues disrupt your circadian rhythm.  This includes night-lights and screen light from phones, TVs, and computers.  If you live in a city, get heavy curtains to avoid light pollution from leaking into your room.  (Fun fact: you will sleep best without a moon and not as well during a full moon, because of the light the moon gives off.)
  • Keep your room cool.  One of the ways the body signals for sleep (and an important component of keeping the circadian clock ticking) is by dropping the body temperature.  If you don't have or like to use air conditioning, taking a shower before bed in another good way to lower your body temperature and prompt sleep.
  • Don't eat for a few hours before bed.  Especially not sugar.  The best snacks before bed are things that 
  • Waking up in the middle of the night?  Don't worry.  That's actually normal.  Get up, pee, have a glass of water, and lie back down.  Avoid light as much as possible.  A 20-minute or 30-minute wake-up in the middle of the night is part of a normal REM cycle.  People in the 17th century were all about the midnight waking period, and often used their midnight waking to pray, journal, sew by moonlight, or go say hi to the neighbors.  (People in the 17th century also totally wore nipple rings.)
  • Try to schedule daytime naps and exercise early.  Doing them after 5 or 6 pm will keep you awake.
  • Avoid drugs.  All of them.  Alcohol, caffeine, all of it.  Even things that "help" you sleep are really just knocking you unconscious and preventing you from achieving restful REM sleep, which requires a sober brain to achieve ideal patterns.
  • Don't delay getting up.  I'm guilt myself of this.  I love the snooze button.  But hitting it repeatedly can mess up your sleep cycle.  It's best to get up when you wake, especially if it's already light out.
  • Don't be a giraffe.  If you discover you are a giraffe (one of the telltale signs is a long neck), speak to your doctor immediately.
There's a lot to be said and a lot still to be discovered when it comes to sleep, but the truth is... I should be sleeping now.  And limiting my screen time is part of that.  So, adios for now, readers, and remember: strive to control what you can, and stop making excuses.  You're worth more than that, and you deserve a good night's sleep.

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