Reset Your Circadian Rhythms with Seven Steps to Better Sleep
Light is the primary cue or stimulus that “sets” our circadian rhythms, or our 24-hour internal clock. This means that when we transition from Daylight Saving Time (DST) to Standard Time, setting the clocks back one hour on the first Sunday in November, our circadian rhythms can struggle to adjust. Although we are gaining one hour of sleep, our bodies still must acclimate to the time change, with a possible result being lost or disrupted sleep. The same is true for the spring movement to DST and the loss of that hour. Changes to sleep (along with other stressors) can negatively impact our gut microbiome, resulting in more pro-inflammatory bacteria. Read on for tips to help support your circadian rhythms in the winter months.
Prep for the time change
Make your adjustment more gradual by getting a head start. This year, on November third (three days before the time change), start waking up 20 minutes later than you normally would. Then, on November fifth (the day before Standard Time begins), wake up 40 minutes later than your norm. That way, on November sixth, you should be adjusted, possibly even waking up automatically the full hour later. In the spring, do the opposite: start waking up 20 minutes earlier than normal a few days before DST, then 40 minutes. This will help you adjust better to that one hour loss that can seem like an eternity on the day it happens.
Brighten your days
Sunlight exposure suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy. That’s why spending as much time as you can outdoors during waking hours will help your body adjust more quickly to the new time. Jumpstart your days by popping outside for a few minutes, maybe while you drink your morning coffee or tea. If it’s too cold to do so, or if there is little light (such as in the fall), sit in front of a therapeutic light box.
If you can, exercise while you’re in nature, as physical activity has been shown to ease falling and staying asleep1. Try a brisk morning neighborhood walk or a hike in a nature preserve (be sure to bundle up if you're doing this in the winter). To make sure you stick to your routine—which might be less compelling on cooler days—enlist a friend to be your walking or hiking partner.
Darken your nights
By the same logic, try to avoid light exposure in the late evening. A couple of hours before you plan to go to sleep, dim the lights. If you can, stay away from electronic devices (sources of blue light, which can keep you awake). Plug in a night light, to illuminate your path to the bathroom, for when nature calls in the middle of the night. While you sleep, wear an eye mask or use blackout drapes or shades to bathe your bedroom in darkness.
Nap the right way
If you feel your energy flagging during the day, try a power nap. Set an alarm and doze for no longer than 20 minutes. Any longer, and you’ll likely awaken groggy and have trouble falling asleep and getting the ideal seven or eight hours of shuteye.
Boost your bedroom
In addition to dimming the lights, set your thermostat for a bedtime temperature of 65 degrees, which a National Sleep Foundation poll found is the ideal sleeping temperature2. Since dry air (both the summer and winter) can lead to congestion and snoring and breathing patterns—which can reduce the quality of sleep—try a humidifier. Add on the benefits of aromatherapy by using a combination humidifier and aromatherapy diffuser (with lavender oil). Finally, to cancel out sounds that could wake you up, run a sound machine (or wear ear plugs).
Be mindful about what you eat and drink
Avoid caffeine within six hours of your bedtime3. Similarly, cut down on alcohol, which—although it can initially help you fall asleep—can act as a stimulant later, keeping you up. Instead, try tart cherry juice, which some research has shown could improve sleep4. Scientists theorize the effect could be due to the fruits’ concentration of melatonin and antioxidants.
When it comes to meals and snacks, eat at least a couple of hours before bedtime, to avoid issues like heartburn. To cut down on digestive discomfort, stay away from spicy and fatty foods. For an easy-to-digest evening snack conducive to sleep, opt for nuts, like almonds, walnuts, or cashews. Some research has shown that melatonin, magnesium, and zinc (all present in nuts) could help reduce insomnia in older adults5.
Practice good sleep hygiene
To reinforce your circadian rhythms, go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning, even on the weekends.
1[Exercise and sleep patterns]. (n.d.). John Hopkin’s Medicine. hopkinsmedicine.org
2Pacheco, D. (2022). [Temperature and sleep]. Sleepfoundation.org
3 Drake, C. et al. (2013). [Effects of caffeine on sleep]. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, PubMed.gov
4 Suni, E. (2022). [Best foods for sleep]. Sleepfoundation.org
5 Rondanelli, M. PhD. et al. (2011). [Effects of supplements on sleep study]. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society
Breus, M.J. PhD. (2022). [Sleep and time changes]. webmd.com
Pacheco, D. (2022). [Sleep and daylight saving time]. Sleepfoundation.org
[Information on Melatonin]. (n.d.). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
[Sleeping during the winter]. (n.d.). wa-health.kaiserpermanente.org
MacMillan, A. (2019). [Better sleep during winter]. Health.com
Peters, B. MD. (2022). [Staying consistent with sleep habits]. verywellhealth.com