One of my clients came to me recently complaining that she was having trouble falling and staying asleep no matter what time she went to bed—and that her bedtime kept getting earlier and earlier. She was always tired, short-tempered, and moody, riddled with brain fog, and constantly felt the need to reach for sugary, high-fat comfort foods to “boost” her energy levels.
It was easy to see: Her circadian rhythm—the mechanism that enables your body to automatically know when to wake up and get out of bed and when it’s time to go to sleep, among other things—was totally out of whack, and she wasn’t going to feel better until she recalibrated her internal body clock.
There are a number of things in our modern world that can throw off the body’s circadian rhythms (constantly being bombarded with unnatural light sources during what should be sleeping hours is a big one)—but making small tweaks to your surrounding environment and the way you take care of yourself can get you back on track, helping you sleep more soundly and boosting your productivity and focus in the process.
Here, a little background on why our circadian rhythm is so important, and the little ways you can reset your internal body clock naturally with solutions I’ve personally found effective as well as tips from sleep experts.
How do circadian rhythms affect sleep and health?
The circadian rhythm is the biological mechanism that controls the sleep-wake cycle, as well as when hormones are released for ovulation and digestion and when it’s time for your body to sleep so your muscles can rest, your memories can consolidate, and your immune system can get stronger. Our master body clock in the brain strongly influences our circadian rhythm—and this body clock is influenced heavily by the natural blue light that comes from the sun’s rays as well as the unnatural blue light from indoor lighting and digital screens.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the master clock is a group of about 20,000 nerve cells that form a structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is located in the hypothalamus. When sunlight comes in through the eyes, the SCN picks up the cue that it’s daylight and time to get up and be active. As the light diminishes and then disappears—like at night—the SCN signals to the body that it’s time to sleep by telling the pineal gland in the brain to produce and secrete more of the hormone melatonin so you get drowsy.
When we interfere with the body’s clock—by, say, scrolling through Instagram on our blue-light-emitting phones until 11:30 p.m.—it inhibits the production of melatonin, our bodies become befuddled, and we experience sleep disorders. And because sleep is when our bodies detox and our cells turn over, repair, and rebuild, messing with our internal clock can have widespread health implications over time.
How to reset your body clock naturally.
1. Open the blinds as soon as you wake up.
Get your head into the daylight first thing in the morning to signal your pineal gland to stop producing melatonin and to signal your adrenal glands to start producing energizing cortisol, recommends Susan Blum, M.D., MPH, assistant clinical professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of The Immune System Recovery Plan. This sets the clock on your circadian rhythm so you can feel energetic during the day and tired at night.
2. Consider a natural-light alarm clock.
If you can’t get exposed to daylight as soon as you wake up, consider a daylight simulation alarm clock. These start waking you up to half an hour before your alarm time, beginning with a soft glow and ramping up to full brightness by your wake-up time. These can be great if your job requires you to wake up before it’s light out, or if you sleep in a windowless bedroom. Researchers at the University of Westminster found that exposing people to a simulated version of morning light helps them start the day feeling more active and less groggy.
3. Manage stress levels throughout the day—and get outside!
Higher stress levels can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels and reduced melatonin levels, leading to more dysfunction of your internal body clock. This is why incorporating some sort of regular stress-countering practice—yoga, jogging, meditation, reading, gardening, etc.—into your routine is key for overall hormonal balance. You may also want to consider doing your higher intensity workouts in the morning or early afternoon since exercise naturally increases cortisol levels, which can mess with sleep. Better yet, workout outside, as prolonged exposure to natural light (like you’d get on a long hike or weekend camping trip) has been shown to help reset your internal clock.
4. Make lunch your biggest meal.
The ancient system of medicine called ayurveda suggests that we eat according to our body’s internal clock to avoid inflammation and microbiome imbalance—which includes making lunch your biggest meal of the day and eating a smaller dinner. This, of course, may help with sleep as you’re less likely to experience indigestion when you consume a smaller evening meal. Additionally, the gut is responsible for producing serotonin, which converts to melatonin, but “if you eat a heavy meal before retiring, especially one loaded with fat and sugar, then serotonin (and thus, melatonin) production, will be hindered,” explains Doni Wilson, N.D., author of The Natural Insomnia Solution.
5. Eat foods rich in melatonin before bed.
Tart cherries (and to a lesser extent, sweet bing cherries) are the most potent dietary source of melatonin, and drinking tart cherry juice before bed has been shown to improve sleep duration and quality in both men and women—which is why this relaxing smoothie makes an ideal late-night snack. Foods containing tryptophan (such as poultry, eggs, cheese, beans, oats, and pumpkin seeds) are also a great choice, as tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin.
6. Avoid (or block) blue light at night.
Our bodies know when it’s dark, and that’s when melatonin gets released, so don’t confuse it by staring into the bright, blue lights of phone screens, computers, televisions, and other electronic devices, says Wilson. Avoid these sleep-sabotaging rays by putting yourself on a screen-time curfew and using more subtle light sources like candles or a Himalayan salt lamp. Or block them by wearing blue-light-blocking amber glasses, which raise melatonin and lower cortisol levels. Unlike blue-light-filtering apps you can use on your phone or computer, amber glasses help shield our eyes from blue light from all sources, including our overhead lights—making them the most efficient way to protect yourself.