Circadian Misalignment: The Common Problem You Never Knew You Had

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Modern life is messing with our clocks

My sleep schedule has been hijacked by the perfect storm of dysfunctional behaviors: working late, often in front of glowing screens, almost always sipping coffee. Work days are a struggle, and on weekends, I snooze until mid-morning. OK fine, mid-afternoon.

This inconsistent schedule and nighttime barrage of artificial light has usurped my circadian rhythms—the biological and behavioral patterns that predictably fluctuate over a near 24-hour cycle.

Confused, the master clock in my brain that directs sleep and waking is no longer keeping me on schedule with day and night. The result? I’ve morphed into a night owl, wide awake at 1 a.m., and a sub-human zombie in the morning.

And I’m not alone. Recently, scientists used smart phones to study how societal factors like work schedules and artificial light impact global sleep patterns. They confirmed that these factors can override natural rhythms and delay people’s bedtimes, and that later bedtimes correlate with less sleep.

What is circadian misalignment and why it’s bad

In addition to sleep deprivation, pushing back our bedtimes can produce a condition called morning circadian misalignment.

“Staying up late in and of itself isn’t circadian misalignment; it’s waking up early before your body is ready and going to work or school—that’s morning circadian misalignment,” explains Dr. Kenneth P. Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Circadian misalignment occurs when there’s a mismatch between our environment’s time and our body’s internal time—because we’re making ourselves stay awake while our clocks are promoting sleep or vice versa.

In morning circadian misalignment, we wake up while our clocks are still encouraging sleep. It’s too early, and our bodies are ill prepared. Yet, because we have obligations, we force ourselves to drive, think, work, and eat anyway.

And it’s hurting us.

“We’ve known for many decades that there are health consequences associated with circadian misalignment, and we see it in shift workers,” says Wright. Consequences like higher risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and substance abuse.

“Now we know that circadian misalignment is a lot more prevalent throughout the world, not just in shift workers” says Wright.

Like in night owls.

Like shift workers, night owls run a higher risk of chronic diseases, but it’s unclear why.

These health consequences are likely due to both circadian misalignment and lack of sleep, as these two problems go hand in hand, explains Wright.

However, Wright and other scientists are starting to tease these variables apart in controlled experiments. In one such study, sleep deprivation with circadian misalignment produced more inflammation and greater reductions in the body’s sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar, compared to just sleep deprivation alone.

Science-backed strategies to help re-align your clocks

For Wright, developing treatments for sleep and circadian issues is a major research goal. Here are some strategies that he and others have shown to help align our clocks with our environments.

1. Get sunlight in the day

“Start your day with a morning walk, take a break at work and go outside,” says Wright. You’ve probably heard this before, but why is sunlight important?

“Natural light is a strong signal,” he explains. It’s the signal we evolved in, on this rotating planet. Our bodies and minds are programmed to perform when there’s light, and rest and replenish when it’s dark.

Our master clock knows when it’s daytime because our eyes communicate with it through specialized nerve pathways. In response to light, it increases certain hormones in a coordinated response that physically prepares us to wake up.

According to the global smart phone study, people who spend more time in sunlight have earlier bedtimes and get more sleep

2. Avoid all bright light at night

“Turn the lights down at night, dim electronic devices,” says Wright.

You’ve definitely heard this before, but why do it?

In the evening, our master clock increases the hormone melatonin, which makes us feel drowsy. Bright light at night can delay this melatonin increase, keeping us awake.

Research suggests that blue wavelength light is especially adept at suppressing melatonin. On apps and devices that filter blue light from electronic screens, Wright said: “Research needs to be done to determine their effectiveness, but in theory, they may help. Dimming the intensity of light is important, and if it is bright enough, the color of the light does not matter.”

3. Combine strategies

Our master clocks can combine cues, like morning bright light and evening melatonin supplements, to advance our master clocks and induce melatonin increases earlier. When used alone, bright light and melatonin may not be as potent at promoting earlier sleep.

4. No caffeine at night

We’ve known that caffeine affects the sleep process. But that caffeine before bedtime can alter our master clock to delay the evening rise in melatonin is brand new information. “What we found out in our study is that, not only does caffeine affect sleep, but it can affect the clock,” Wright explains.

5. Be consistent

Keeping a consistent sleep schedule is important. No binge-sleeping on Saturdays. Sleeping in on weekends can lead to social jet lag, another example of circadian misalignment caused by drastically diverging sleep patterns on weekdays versus weekends.

6. If all else fails, go camping.

This may be that swift kick in the clocks you’ve been looking for. Wright took subjects camping to study how sleep and circadian patterns change in the absence of artificial light. Turns out, a week in the wilderness can synch the circadian rhythms of research subjects—even night owls—to the natural day-night cycle.

Maybe your bad work habits screwed up your clocks (me), or maybe you’ve temporarily moved into your in-law’s basement, and natural light is hard to come by (also me). Or maybe, you’ve always been a night owl. Though we all have different rhythms, they’re malleable—like when we adjust to new time zones.

So if you want to sync your clocks with your environment, science can help.