Key Takeaways
  • Circadian rhythms dictate multiple processes in the body, including alertness or sleepiness, appetite, and body temperature.
  • The body’s internal clock is naturally aligned with the cycle of day and night.
  • Circadian rhythms can be disrupted by travel, work, or an underlying issue.
  • Maintain a healthy circadian rhythm by keeping a consistent sleep schedule, getting light exposure, and exercising daily.

Feeling tired as the sun starts to set may be a sign of a synchronized circadian rhythm. Since circadian rhythms are closely related to environmental cues like light, they can affect how a person feels throughout the day.

Understanding circadian rhythms and how they work can be essential for maintaining a healthy sleep-wake cycle. We discuss what circadian rhythms are, how they are affected by different factors, and how to prevent related sleep issues.

What Are Circadian Rhythms?

Circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock, running in the background to carry out essential functions and processes. One of the most important and well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle.

Different systems of the body follow circadian rhythms that are synchronized with a biological clock in the brain. This internal clock is directly influenced by environmental cues, especially light, which is why circadian rhythms are tied to the cycle of day and night.

When properly aligned, a circadian rhythm can promote consistent and restorative sleep. But when this circadian rhythm is thrown off, it can create significant sleep problems, including insomnia. Research is also revealing that circadian rhythms play an integral role in diverse aspects of physical and mental health.

How Does Circadian Rhythm Work?

Circadian rhythms work by helping to make sure that the body’s processes are optimized at various points during a 24-hour period . The term circadian comes from the Latin phrase “circa diem,” which means “around a day.”

Circadian rhythms exist in all types of organisms. For example, they help flowers open and close at the right time and keep nocturnal animals from leaving their shelter during the daytime when they would be exposed to more predators.

In people, circadian rhythms coordinate mental and physical systems throughout the body. The digestive system produces proteins to match the typical timing of meals, and the endocrine system regulates hormones to suit normal energy expenditure.

The circadian rhythms throughout the body are connected to an internal clock located in the brain. Specifically, it is found in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. At different times of the day, clock genes in the SCN send signals to regulate activity throughout the body.

The SCN is highly sensitive to light, which serves as a critical external cue that influences the signals sent by the SCN to coordinate circadian rhythms in the body. For this reason, circadian rhythms are closely connected to day and night. While other cues, like exercise, social activity, and temperature, can affect the internal clock, light is the most powerful influence on circadian rhythms.

Is a Circadian Rhythm the Same As a Biological Clock?

Biological clocks help regulate the timing of bodily processes, including circadian rhythms. A circadian rhythm is an effect of a biological clock, but not all biological clocks are circadian. For instance, plants adjust to changing seasons using a biological clock with timing that is distinct from a 24-hour cycle.

How Does Circadian Rhythm Affect Sleep?

When people talk about circadian rhythm, it is most often in the context of sleep. The sleep-wake cycle is one of the most clear and critical examples of the importance of circadian rhythms.

During the day, light exposure causes the internal clock to send signals that generate alertness and help keep us awake and active. As night falls, the internal clock initiates the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep, and then keeps transmitting signals that help us stay asleep through the night.

In this way, circadian rhythms align sleep and wakefulness with day and night to create a stable cycle of restorative rest that enables increased daytime activity.

What Does Circadian Rhythm Affect Besides Sleep?

While the sleep-wake cycle is one of the most prominent circadian rhythms, these 24-hour cycles play a vital role in virtually all systems of the body.

Research continues to uncover details about circadian rhythms, but evidence has connected them to metabolism and weight through the regulation of blood sugar and cholesterol. Circadian rhythms influence mental health as well, including the risk of psychiatric illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder as well as the potential for neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.

There are indications that circadian rhythms have an important influence on the immune system as well as processes of DNA repair that are involved in preventing cancer . Early-stage research indicates that circadian cycles can influence the effectiveness of anti-cancer drugs and that new medications may be used more strategically.

What Happens When Circadian Rhythm Is Off?

When circadian rhythm is thrown off, the body’s systems do not function optimally. A disturbed sleep-wake circadian rhythm can give rise to serious sleep problems. Without the proper signaling from the body’s internal clock, a person can have difficulty falling asleep, wake up more often throughout the night, or be unable to sleep as long as they want into the morning. Their total sleep can be reduced, and a disrupted circadian rhythm can also mean shallower, fragmented, and lower-quality sleep.

In addition, studies have identified circadian rhythm disruptions as potential contributors to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a sleep disorder marked by repeated lapses in breathing. OSA reduces the body’s oxygen levels and causes numerous sleep interruptions through the night.

As a whole, a misaligned circadian rhythm can negatively affect sleep in many ways, increasing a person’s risk of insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness. Given the essential role of sleep for productivity and overall health, there are often significant consequences when a person’s circadian rhythm is off.

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Circadian Rhythms

What Can Disrupt Circadian Rhythm?

Disruptions to circadian rhythm can occur over the short- or long-term. Experts have identified a number of types of circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders (CRSWD) based on their characteristics and causes.

  • Jet lag disorder: This occurs when a person travels across multiple time zones in a short period of time. Until a person’s circadian rhythm can acclimate to the day-night cycle of their new location, they are likely to suffer sleeping problems and fatigue from jet lag.
  • Shift work disorder: Work obligations can cause major disruptions in a person’s circadian rhythm. Shift work, which requires having to work through the night and sleep during the day, puts a person’s sleep schedule directly at odds with the local daylight hours.
  • Advanced sleep phase disorder: People with this rare type of disruption find that they get tired early in the evening and wake up very early in the morning. Even if they want to be up later at night or sleep later in the morning, people with an advanced sleep phase disorder usually cannot do so. 
  • Delayed sleep-wake phase syndrome: This type of circadian rhythm disruption is associated with staying up late at night and sleeping in late in the morning. The exact cause is unknown, but delayed sleep-wake phase syndrome may be related to genetics, underlying physical conditions, and a person’s behavior.
  • Non-24-hour sleep wake disorder:  Non-24-hour sleep wake disorder occurs primarily in people who are blind and are not able to receive light-based cues for their circadian rhythm. Their body still follows a 24-hour cycle, but their sleeping hours constantly shift backward by minutes or hours at a time.
  • Irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder: People with this rare disorder have no consistent pattern to their sleep and may have many naps or short sleeping periods throughout a 24-hour day. Irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder is frequently connected to conditions that affect the brain , such as dementia or traumatic brain injury.

Some circadian disruptions are related to individual behavior, such as for travel or work, that makes sleep-wake schedules inconsistent with normal daylight hours. Other disorders stem from an underlying issue that causes an inability to receive or process environmental cues that regulate the body’s biological clock. In certain situations, genetic causes may be involved, or the cause may be unknown.

How To Maintain a Healthy Circadian Rhythm

While it is not possible to have full control over circadian rhythms, there are healthy sleep tips that can be followed to better entrain these 24-hour sleep cycles.

Clock visual displaying a schedule of things to do throughout the day to maintain a healthy sleep/wake cycle
  • Seek out sun: Exposure to natural light, especially early in the day, helps reinforce the strongest circadian cue.
  • Follow a consistent sleep schedule: Varying your bedtime or morning wake-up time can hinder your body’s ability to adjust to a stable circadian rhythm.
  • Get daily exercise: Activity during the day can support your internal clock and help make it easier to fall asleep at night.
  • Avoid caffeine: Stimulants like caffeine can keep you awake and throw off the natural balance between sleep and wakefulness. Everyone is different, but if you are having trouble sleeping at night, you should avoid caffeine after noon.
  • Limit light before bed: Artificial light exposure at night can interfere with circadian rhythm. Experts advise dimming the lights and putting down electronic devices in the lead-up to bedtime.
  • Keep naps short and early in the afternoon: Late and long naps can push back your bedtime and throw your sleep schedule off-kilter.
  • Make the bedroom conducive to sleep: Your bedroom setting can influence your sleep habits and the quality of your sleep at night. Invest in a comfortable mattress, bedding, and sleep accessories.

These steps to improve sleep hygiene can be an important part of supporting a healthy circadian rhythm, but other steps may be necessary depending on the situation. If you have persistent or severe sleeping problems, daytime drowsiness, or a problematic sleep schedule, it is important to talk with a doctor who can best diagnose the cause and offer the most appropriate treatment.

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