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Work With Your Circadian Rhythm To Find Your Best Night’s Sleep

Can’t stop hitting snooze? Understanding your circadian rhythm could be your secret super power to stop you crawling back under the covers.
by Rosie Allabarton | Oct 3 2019

Do you bounce out of bed in the morning? Or are you more likely to hit the snooze button every five minutes until you absolutely have to get out of bed, grumbling at the unfairness of it all? Whichever one you relate to, what you may not be aware of is that we are all at the mercy of our individual circadian rhythm.

This rhythm is part of your body’s internal clock and varies from person to person. It decides if you’re most happy staying up late into the night (and waking up late in the morning), or if you leap out of bed as the sun is rising (or before), fresh-faced and somehow chipper.

Although you can’t fight your circadian rhythm, by understanding better how your body works in relation to it you will not only be able to achieve a better night’s sleep, you’ll stand a much better chance of waking up in the morning ready to face the day, rather than despairing over the sleep you wish you’d had.

Why we sleep and why we all need more of it

Considering how much time we all spend sleeping—twenty six years over the average lifetime—it’s amazing how little we know about sleep. A book from the Blinkist library, Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, seeks to uncover some of the truths about sleep so we can all better understand why it’s so essential for good physical health and a happy mind.

What you probably already know is that sleep is essential to boosting mental health, increasing immunity and fertility, and regulating our weight. You may also be aware that sleep helps to repair and restore organ systems, and boosts memory.

But it goes deeper than that, Walker explains. One’s risk of heart disease, he writes, is increased by 45%, regardless of other lifestyle factors, if a person is sleep-deprived. Other studies support this theory. Workers who slept 6 hours a night or fewer were found to be a whopping 500% more likely to suffer from a heart attack than those who slept a full eight hours, because when we lose just a few hours of sleep per night, our blood pressure increases. This damages the walls of our blood vessels by stretching them out. When this happens on a regular basis over time, we are at a much higher risk of heart-related issues.

But it’s not just long-term risks, there are also significant short-term health concerns if we lose those precious hours of sleep. One in particular is that it causes lapses in concentration. In some instances these could be life-threatening. Walker points to research which found that those who drank just over the legal alcohol limit (for driving) had the same level of concentration as those who had gone without a night’s sleep. In both groups, the participants would be unfit to operate a vehicle, and if they did, a danger to themselves and others. This study was supported by research that showed that even the one hour of sleep lost with Daylight Savings Time sees instances of traffic accidents increase by 7% and death rates from all accidents increase by 6.5%. Another reason to give sleep the consideration it deserves.

How society is built for the early bird

There aren’t just physical and mental health considerations to take into account when we look at the phenomena of sleep. Society is constructed in such a way that positively benefits those who wake up early, and penalizes those who wake up late. As Walker points out, many aspects of life and work involve being awake and alert in the morning. This way of structuring our days begins in childhood at daycare or school, then continues into adulthood with university and the working world.

You may recognize that you struggle to concentrate in the mornings, while late at night you’re productive and highly functioning. But try explaining that to your boss when everyone else has to be in the office at 9 AM, or your new clients decide to schedule a breakfast meeting. When you’re yawning your way through the first few hours of the day, it may look like poor performance on your part, but it’s actually got a lot to do with your circadian rhythm, something that you have very little control over!

Indeed, it’s not just anecdotal evidence that suggests early risers have an advantage in life. It’s been scientifically proven that those who spring out of bed in the morning are also top university performers and get better grades than those who wake up later in the day. As Walker writes: “Society is morning-oriented,” the exact time of day when a night owl’s body is telling him to be tucked up in bed.

Why the night owl is always tired

While early birds are busy being productive during the day, night owls—who make up around 30% of the population—are forced to go along with it, even though it goes against their bodies’ natural rhythm. This rhythm dictates not just sleep, but also when you’re hungry or thirsty, your metabolic rate, and to some extent your emotional ups and downs too. It’s a big deal, so if you’re someone who naturally stays up late, and rises late in the morning, going against those natural impulses can affect not just how many hours of sleep you get but your mood, your weight, and your energy levels too. As we’ve seen, there are long term health effects too. Walker puts it like this:

“Being out of sync with society’s schedule puts night owls in a tough position: they must get up early even though they fall asleep late. Thus, they’re often sleep-deprived, which makes it likelier that they’ll suffer from a range of illnesses, including diabetes, depression and cancer.”

When you think of it this way, being a night owl in a society built for early birds means more than just a few extra yawns on the bus to work in the morning, it profoundly affects living and enjoying a long life.

How to work with, rather than against, your circadian rhythm

Although you can’t change overnight from a night owl to an early bird, Walker does have some advice for all of us so we that we can get the best night’s sleep possible. When we’ve learnt to complement our rhythm with these tips and tricks, we’ll be waking up more refreshed ready to face the day, everyday.

First of all, he says, if we want to get good quality sleep, we need to consider reducing or eliminating our consumption of alcohol. Although having a drink can help us fall asleep, our quality of sleep actually decreases significantly when we consume alcohol. Alcohol also prevents us from entering deep sleep, impairs our breathing once we are asleep, and often when the alcohol has worn off we wake up, defeating the purpose of that bedtime nightcap altogether.

Nicotine should also be avoided, Walker writes. As a stimulant, nicotine consumption means that smokers sleep more lightly than non-smokers, and wake up earlier due to nicotine withdrawal.

We can also take some proactive steps if we want to improve our quality of sleep, whether we consider ourselves a night owl or an early bird. Keeping the temperature in the bedroom low, having a bath before bed, and getting lots of natural sunlight during the day are all sleep-promoting tactics that have been proven to not just send you off to sleep but ensure that your sleep is a deep and rejuvenating one.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the science of sleep and how we can all do it a little better. If you’d like to understand more about your circadian rhythm, we highly recommend Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, available on Blinkist. With a few tweaks to your daily routine, and armed with science-backed knowledge of your own circadian rhythm, you’ll soon be sleeping longer and deeper, waking fully refreshed and ready to face the new day, with primal grumbles of despair kept to a bare minimum.

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