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What is Circadian Rhythm and How Does it Impact Our Health?

I’ve mentioned in several of my blogs about the importance of maintaining a good circadian rhythm for optimal sleep and wakefulness. In this blog, I’ll describe how this master clock in our body influences our daily pattern and its importance in keeping this internal rhythm balanced and healthy.

Your circadian rhythm is your 24-hour cycle that is part of your body’s internal clock that carries out essential functions and processes. It is controlled by your hypothalamus and translates signals from the environment to your body. Your rhythm is influenced by external factors like light and your body can regulate temperature and metabolism to keep you alert or help you fall asleep.

Your sleep-wake cycle is part of your circadian rhythm and during the day, light exposure sends signals to your brain to be awake, alert and active. When your brain detects darkness at night, it stimulates the production of melatonin which is a hormone that promotes deep sleep. And it is this alignment of day-wakefulness and night-sleep that maintains a healthy cycle of your body’s circadian rhythm.

The word “circadian” comes from the Latin phrase “circa diem” which means “around a day” and this rhythm works to ensure that the body’s processes are optimized during the 24-hour cycle. Just as the circadian rhythm of a flower determines when they open up during the day and close at night, the same goes for us humans with our mental and physical systems in sync throughout the body during this cycle. For example, our circadian rhythm tells us when to regulate our digestive system, temperature and hormones to manage our metabolism and energy expenditure. Our circadian rhythms are closely connected to day and night – light is the most powerful influencer on our hypothalamus and impacts how this part of the brain interprets signals to regulate our body’s activities. 

Disruption of the circadian rhythm not only leads to sleep disorders but research is now revealing how it impacts physical and mental health like obesity, diabetes, depression and mood. Studies have shown that circadian rhythm disruption can lead to cognitive impairment and metabolic syndrome as well as psychiatric illness and age-related dementia.

The most common causes of circadian rhythm disruption are due to:

Maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm is critical to getting good sleep at night and functioning at your peak during the day. Here are some good habits to establish:

While establishing good sleep hygiene can help you maintain a good circadian rhythm, there may be other circumstances that can prevent you from getting optimal sleep. If you have persistent sleeping issues and/or daytime drowsiness, speak to your doctor or seek out a sleep specialist to dig deeper into the cause to get to the root of the problem.