Can You Change Your Circadian Rhythm?
I always thought I was a night owl. In high school and college my best work would come by moonlight. Mornings, I’d awaken slowly and groggily.
But, at age 30, after I moved to California, a notoriously early-to-rise and early-to-bed state (especially since everyone was up at dawn surfing, running or doing yoga), I found myself going to bed earlier and awakening with the sun for those morning workouts.
Strangely, I enjoyed it. Could it be that I was really a morning person but did not know it, or did I actually change my sleep cycle?
“Most of us generally have a rhythm, a time we like to get up and go to sleep—it’s your body trying to sync itself with the environment so you can anticipate what is to come, from everything from eating to sleeping to exercising—all these things have a peak and trough related to a circadian cycle,” says Dr. W. Christopher Winter, the Medical Director of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and a board-certified sleep medicine specialist.
Circadian, based on the Latin word for “about a day,” refers to the innate 24-hour rhythm or cycle in the physiological processes of living things. The body’s natural time-keeping system regulates our hormones, body temperature and sleep cycle.
“There’s a genetic component to it, but there are also environmental elements to it,” says Dr. Winter about being a morning or a night person.
We all deal with shifts in our circadian rhythms, for example, jet lag occurs when our bodies adjust to changing time zones.
Light is one of the essential influencers on circadian rhythms; when people shift their biological clocks, for example, to accommodate an early school schedule or late-night shift work, they change their exposure to sunlight.
As we age, we tend to get up earlier, as opposed to being more awake at night as younger people.
Is that what happened to me? I simply got older?
Dr. Winter doesn’t think so. “I think you can change your rhythm,” he says, noting that he sees a lot of clients who want to change their kids’ late-night studying habits before their children go to college and end up missing early-morning classes. He says that once people realize they need to change their patterns for work or school, they can, but he’s not sure you can change the “underlying drive” of your patterns.
“Because of my job and my family, I can wake up early every day and exercise, but I don’t think I’m changing who I am fundamentally,” he says, noting the minute he’s on vacation, he wakes up late again.
“It takes work,” he says. “There’s always a certain aspect of you swimming upstream.”
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