Understanding and properly winding our internal clocks

We changed the clocks back to Daylight Savings Time this past weekend, springing forward an hour. Even if we hadn’t been thinking about it, we knew, instinctively, this adjustment was coming. We watched the sun set a little later each day on our way home from work giving us more time to be outdoors and more nurturing sunlight to calm our nerves. But when we actually woke an hour “early” on Sunday, we may have felt a little tired and off track…and so did our kids and maybe even our pets.

It’s natural — our internal clocks, more than anything created by Timex and Rolex, affect our sleep, our moods, our productivity and, of course, our health. We suffer when we don’t get enough or when we get too much sleep, and when we sleep at the wrong time. Fatigue is dangerous relative to workplace safety, driving, sports and our resistance to a variety of illnesses and diseases. And whether you work nine to five, six to midnight or through the wee hours of the morning, if you can’t adjust your natural clock, your overall wellness will suffer.

Circadian rhythm disorders are disruptions in a person’s circadian rhythm — a name given to the “internal body clock” that regulates the (approximately) 24-hour cycle of biological processes in animals and plants. The term circadian comes from Latin words that literally mean around the day. There are patterns of brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration, and other biological activities linked to this 24-hour cycle.

Circadian rhythms can be affected by light or darkness, which can make the body think it’s time to sleep or wake up. The 24-hour body clock controls functions such as:

  • Sleeping and waking
  • Body temperature
  • The balance of body fluids
  • Other body functions, such as when you feel hungry

Making the shift

Body clock sleep problems have been linked to a hormone called melatonin. Light and dark affect how the body makes melatonin. Most melatonin is made at night. During the day, light tells your body to make less melatonin. If you work at night in artificial light, your body may be making less melatonin than it needs.

Understanding and adjusting to these internal rhythms — or learning how to compensate and “retool” your body — is critical, no matter your schedule. That requires discipline, setting boundaries in the case of children and friends, and respecting your body’s needs. When we’re tired we become tense and irritable, lose concentration, make mistakes, have trouble with mental retention and can fall asleep during working hours.

If you work the night shift or rotate shifts, you can help yourself get adequate sleep by keeping your bedroom dark and quiet and by taking good care of yourself overall. In some cases, prescription medicine or over-the-counter supplements may help. Here are some tips on sleeping well when you do this type of shift work:

  • Make sure that the room where you sleep is dark. Use blackout drapes, or wear a sleep eye mask.
  • Wear earplugs to block sounds.
  • Don’t have alcohol or caffeine in the hours leading up to bedtime.
  • Take a nap during a work break if you can.
  • Ask your doctor if you should try a dietary supplement, melatonin or medicine. Supplements or medicines should only be used for a short time, and some drugs will contribute to or cause sleep problems.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol, especially late in the evening or, if you work at night, in the morning. You may fall asleep more easily, but it also interrupts deep sleep and may wake you prematurely.

Other variables affect your ability to sleep and to adjust to shift work, including pregnancy, time-zone changes, medications, and changes in routine. Some you can’t control, but others, like diet, you can.

What, when, and how you eat also affects your ability to work and sleep effectively. You wouldn’t try to go to bed right after eating dinner on a normal day schedule, and the same goes for the person who comes home from work at 7:00 AM. Light meals before sleep ensures better rest, and a pattern of several smaller meals and healthy snacks keeps your body more fully charged and alert when you need to be, and helps you relax when it’s time for rest.

Along with nutrition, exercise remains a constant for good health. Shift workers need to remain fit, and need some exposure to the sun both for internal balance and for overall body wellness. While there are special lamps and therapies for helping people adjust to a lack of natural sunlight, scheduling walks, chores or outdoor workouts during the day when you’re not sleeping will help keep you happier and healthier.

No matter what time you arise, try to get in the habit of getting up at the same time every day, no matter what time you go to sleep. On the weekends (or on days when you don’t have to get up) don’t let yourself sleep more than one hour longer than you do when you have to get up for work or school.

There are various therapies and solutions for helping night-shift workers cope better, and for treating sleep disorders, whenever they occur. For example, chronotherapy is a behavioral technique in which the bedtime is gradually and systematically adjusted until a desired bedtime is achieved. Bright light therapy is designed to reset the body’s circadian rhythm to a desired pattern. When combined, these therapies may produce significant results in people with circadian rhythm disorders, but building and maintaining a smart schedule attuned to your body’s needs is the best solution.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!