There are many reasons to feel out of sorts right now, but one of them is likely the disruption in your circadian rhythm—the biological rhythm all living things (animals, plants, bacteria) experience. Circadian rhythms tell flowers when to bloom and trees when to drop their leaves, fruit fly eggs when to hatch, frogs when to mate, and bears when to hibernate. They tell you when to sleep, wake up and eat—even when to watch out for danger or to relax.
Your circadian rhythm (aka your body clock) is complex—and ruled by many different internal “clocks” in your cells, as well as in the microbiomes in your digestive tract (which has its own circadian rhythm).
The study of circadian rhythms is called chronobiology, which has found going to sleep, waking up, getting hungry, feeling energized, feeling relaxed, and many other natural drives are actually rhythms coming from within, based on environmental cues like light and temperature. Your circadian rhythm can also be influenced by lifestyle cues, like when you eat, how late you stay up, when you work, when you exercise, and more.
How Irregular Schedules Harm Our Health
So what’s happening now that many people are spending a lot less time working and a lot more time at home? In the absence of physical and social cues—having to wake for work or school, attend church, go to meetings, meet friends for socializing—many are experiencing profound sleep and circadian rhythm disruption. Irregular schedules tend to make you less healthy, focused, and positive, and more impulsive, overweight, and prone to bad habits like drinking alcohol and overeating—and more tired, even though you’ve had enough sleep. Here’s why.
In humans, circadian rhythms are affected by light, or its absence, which cues the brain to release hormones that spur you to act in certain ways, like releasing cortisol to wake up and melatonin to go to sleep. These cues also influence the release of growth hormones, insulin, testosterone, leptin, and many other hormones that trigger behaviors like eating or working hard, and feelings like focus or hunger, as well as natural processes like fluctuations in blood pressure, temperature, and coordination, that influence you all day and all night.
Back before we had electric lights (not to mention televisions, computers, and smartphones), natural rhythms took cues from the sun. Now, those cues can get confused by environments lit at night and dim during the day, and behaviors like eating late when the body expects to sleep, skipping breakfast when the body expects to eat, working when the body expects to rest, and sitting when the body expects to move.
Bodies are adaptable, and when you live according to an imposed natural rhythm, your body tends to fall into sync.
Some theorize that circadian rhythm disruption is a major contributor to many chronic health issues like insomnia, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes. However, bodies are adaptable, and when you live according to an imposed natural rhythm, your body tends to fall into sync. It adjusts—as long as you keep the schedule consistent.
But when routines go out the window, your circadian rhythm gets confused. An abrupt change in schedule can make you feel like you have jet lag—even when you can’t travel. It can hinder your digestion, immune system function, energy, and mood.
Sure, it’s tempting to stay up late, sleep in, and gorge on carbs whenever you feel like it—especially if you’re feeling a lot of anxiety or depression right now—but irregular living can actually cause or worsen anxiety and depression, as well as concentration problems, impulsive behavior (online shopping, anyone?), and weight gain. One recent study, for example, showed those who ate irregular meals gained more weight than those who ate regular meals of the same calorie content.
Getting Back on a Schedule
The best thing you can do right now for your circadian rhythm, and, by extension, your health, is get yourself back on a schedule—even if you don’t have to—and especially one that is in sync with your natural rhythms. Here’s what that might look like:
7–8 am: Wake up around the time your brain stops secreting melatonin. Get some natural light to reinforce your brain’s natural wake-up signals.
8:30 am: Have breakfast when your digestive system gets active.
10 am: Get something productive done when you are most alert.
2:30–5 pm: Exercise when you are most coordinated (around 2:30 pm) or when you have the most cardiovascular and muscle strength (around 5 pm).
6 pm: Eat dinner so you have plenty of time to digest before sleeping.
9 pm: Stop looking at all screens and wind down for bed—melatonin secretion has begun and that blue light from screens will artificially suppress it.
11 pm: Lights out; it’s time for high-quality sleep.
At first, you may find it hard to stick to a schedule when it’s not strictly necessary, but this is your chance to get your body and brain back on track. You’ll begin to feel better right away, with more control over cravings and better focus. You might even lose any weight you’ve gained in the last few months. Bonus: The transition back to “normal,” whenever that finally happens, will feel much easier.