Circadian rhythms are natural, internal changes that help the body coordinate and optimize various systems during a 24-hour cycle. The term circadian comes from the Latin phrase “circa diem,” which translates to “around a day”.
When people talk about circadian rhythms, it is most often in the context of sleep. Although circadian rhythms are internal biological processes, they adjust to external cues in your local environment. In other words, our circadian rhythm aligns our sleep and wakefulness with the cycle of day and night.
During the day, light exposures send signals to the brain to help keep us alert, awake and active. As night comes, the brain initiates the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that promotes sleep and helps us stay asleep through the night. This process creates a stable cycle of restorative rest that enables increased daytime activity.
Your circadian rhythm helps you maintain a healthy sleep-wake schedule to function properly, which is essential to your mental and physical health. Disrupting your circadian rhythm can result in exhaustion, mood disorders, obesity, and mental health problems.
In the case that your circadian rhythm is thrown off by daylight savings or jet lag, there are a few things you can do to minimize the effects of time zone shifts by giving your internal clock some helpful cues.
If the time shift is only an hour or two, minor adjustments such as eating meals, going to bed, and awakening a little earlier than usual can go a long way. However, when crossing several time zones, most of us are bound to feel a little out of whack. If you are traveling long distances across several time zones, you may want to try the following:
- Use sunlight to help you readjust.
- Gradually switch meal times before the trip.
- Don’t turn in until it is bedtime in the new time zone.
- Stay hydrated.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol.