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Circadian Rhythms.

What are Circadian rhythms?

Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism's environment. They are found in most living things, including animals, plants and many tiny microbes. The study of circadian rhythms is called chronobiology.

Are circadian rhythms the same thing as biological clocks?

No, but they are related. Our biological clocks drive our circadian rhythms.

What are biological clocks?

The biological clocks that control circadian rhythms are groupings of interacting molecules in cells throughout the body. A "master clock" in the brain coordinates all the body clocks so that they are in synch.

What is the master clock?

The "master clock" that controls circadian rhythms consists of a group of nerve cells in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. The SCN contains about 20,000 nerve cells and is located in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain just above where the optic nerves from the eyes cross.

Do circadian rhythms have a genetic component?

Yes. Researchers have already identified genes that direct circadian rhythms in people, fruit flies, mice, fungi and several other model organisms used for studying genetics.

Does the body make and keep its own circadian rhythms?

Circadian rhythms are produced by natural factors within the body, but they are also affected by signals from the environment. Light is the main cue influencing circadian rhythms, turning on or turning off genes that control an organism's internal clocks.

How do circadian rhythms affect body function and health?

Circadian rhythms can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and other important bodily functions. They have been linked to various sleep disorders, such as insomnia. Abnormal circadian rhythms have also been associated with obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder.

How are circadian rhythms related to sleep?

Circadian rhythms are important in determining human sleep patterns. The body's master clock, or SCN, controls the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. Since it is located just above the optic nerves, which relay information from the eyes to the brain, the SCN receives information about incoming light. When there is less light—like at night—the SCN tells the brain to make more melatonin so you get drowsy.

Circadian rhythms and depression

Your body regulates on a 24 hour cycle that can get messed up when you don’t get enough light or too much light. Find out about your circadian rhythm, and what happens when it is disrupted, including its link to several mental health disorders. Get tips onhow to overcome circadian disruption.

      Signs this might be a problem…

  • you have a bad sleeping pattern
  • you get tired/depressed in winter
  • you don’t really get much light

What are circadian rhythms?

There’s a section of our brain which synchronises our body to a 24 hour cycle and releases hormones to regulate our regular bodily functions – things like:

  • appetite
  • energy
  • mood
  • sleep
These daily cycles for appetite, sleep, etc. are known as circadian rhythms and they are really important to our physical and emotional wellbeing; they help us to keep a stable mood and good physical health

Your body can usually tell when to prepare for certain events. For example, when the sun comes up your body releases cortisol to give you energy so you can be active during the day, and when the sun goes down, you produce and release melatonin, a hormone which makes you sleepy.

Sometimes these cycles get messed up and that can wreak all sorts of havoc on our physical and emotional health. When our circadian rhythms are disrupted and our bodies produce hormones at the wrong time of day, it can increase the chance of depression or worsen existing depression. For example producing melatonin in the day time can cause us to feel dull, unstable, irritable and moody. 

So, what causes circadian systems to get messed up? 
  • lack of sleep
  • stress
  • trauma
  • going to bed and waking up at strange hours
  • shift work
  • genetic factors
  • lack of light.

Signs and symptoms of circadian disruption

When our circadian rhythms have been disrupted, it can have a range of impacts on our physical and mental health, such as:

  • not being able to feel alert
  • becoming easily agitated
  • feeling slow
  • feeling run down
  • feeling exhausted
  • feeling grumpy and irritable
  • experiencing symptoms of depression.
Other disorders impacted by circadian rhythms

Seasonal Affective Disorder 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects people in winter months when it is darker and colder, particularly in areas of the world that don’t receive much sunlight. When days become shorter and we don’t receive enough light, our brains can miss the cues to produce the right hormones at the right times. This can mean we might be sleepier or more energetic at the wrong time of day.

Bipolar disorder 

Bipolar disorder is different to other types of depression in that it is marked by episodes of unusually elevated mood or mania. These episodes can last for hours, days or even months. In many cases of bipolar disorder, depressive and manic episodes are seasonal

What to do about circadian disruption

There are a range of things people do to get their circadian schedule back in working order. The first step is to recognise and correct bad habits which could lead to  problems. Make corrections such as:

  • Don't take naps during the day.

  • Allow yourself time to wind down at the end of the day. Check out some ways to relax.

  • Get exposure to sunlight in the mornings.

  • Get into regular sleeping routine – try to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day and night.

  • Eat and exercise regularly.

If this isn't working

Sometimes this isn’t quite enough and a doctor may need to help you with different strategies to kick your cycle back into the right pattern, including: 

  • light therapy – exposure to bright or blue light during the daytime can help your cycle realign 
  • medication

Your doctor will be able to work with you to figure out an approach that suits you and your lifestyle.

What can I do now?

  • Get tips on getting into a good sleeping routine.
  • Try and get up and go to bed at the same time each day, allowing for 8-9 hours sleep each night.

  • Get outside and enjoy the morning sunshine..............