A few years ago, I found myself wired every single time I tried to go to bed. As a card-carrying lover of an early bedtime, it was a real change of pace for me. It felt like my biological clock got all mixed up and didn’t know when I should be asleep and when I should be awake!
So I spoke with my health care providers and did some research, and found out that’s EXACTLY what was going on! My circadian rhythm—or our body’s natural clock that, among other things, tells us when it’s sleepy time—was out of whack. I spent the next few weeks actively working to reset my circadian rhythm, and within about six weeks, my body was back on track! I was sleeping through the night and had energy all day long.
What is a circadian rhythm?
The circadian rhythm is our body’s natural 24-hour (ish!) cycle of biological processes. It is controlled by part of your brain, the hypothalamus, and the cycle applies to a lot of different functions in the body. But in this particular case, we’re talking about sleep—and our circadian rhythm is what tells our body, “hey, it’s time to wake up!” or, “whoa, let’s go to bed!”
Our circadian rhythms are not fixed throughout a lifetime. In fact, they can change as we age or due to outside influences—travel, work schedule, stress levels.
What causes your circadian rhythm to get out of sync?
Of course, when dealing with any sort of health issue, it’s important to check in with your health care professional to rule out any underlying medical issues. But in our technologically advanced society, an out-of-whack circadian rhythm is often caused by two things: not enough time spent outdoors and being exposed to too much artificial light. Shift work, irregular work hours, traveling over multiple time zones, stress, illness, and a host of other situations can cause problems, too.
How do you know if you need to reset your circadian rhythm?
I’m a big believer that anyone who is having sleep issues should try resetting their circadian rhythm to see if it helps—there really isn’t anything to lose! I think this is especially true if any of the following apply:
- You are wired when it’s dark out and/or tired when it’s light out.
- Falling asleep is really difficult for you.
- You spent a lot of time indoors, especially if you aren’t near natural light sources like windows.
My 9 Steps to Reset Your Circadian Rhythm
Remember the hypothalamus? Well, the hypothalamus takes cues from a ton of different data points in your environment and body to decide where you are in that day’s circadian rhythm. There are dozens and dozens of ways to tweak your cycle—way beyond the scope of what we can do here! So I’m just going to cover the nine things I did to reset my circadian rhythm. These are the items that were simple and easy to do, and they really helped me! The vast majority of them deal with altering the light we’re in during certain times of day. If you just pick one or two to do, it might help tremendously!
1. Get outside as close to sunrise and sunset as possible.
In an ideal world, we’d all spend all day outside, our circadian rhythm would sync up with the sun, and all would be dandy. But alas, most of us have desk jobs, and that ain’t happening. So a good shortcut is to make sure to get outside for at least five minutes as close to both sunrise and sunset as possible—preferably within 30 minutes either way. The goal here is to expose your eyes to the special type of light that is available during the sunrise and sunset to help signal to your hypothalamus that it’s time to be awake (sunrise) or to wind down (sunset). Important: make sure your eyes are exposed to this light without filtering, which means no sunglasses, no sitting behind a window (car or otherwise), and no looking at your smartphone! It’s five minutes. You can do nothing for five minutes. You might even like it!
2. Expose yourself to natural light throughout the day.
Our bodies are biologically programmed to say, “It’s bright outside, so I’m awake,” but that programming is related to sunlight—not the fluorescent lights buzzing overhead in your office. Have you ever felt a mid-afternoon crash and gone for a walk? How’d you feel afterward? Better, right? Oh, the powers of the sun! When you’re working on actively resetting your circadian rhythm, the more natural light you can expose yourself to, the better! Get outside for a walk regularly, or even try moving your desk closer to a window. Even the light from a cloudy, gray day outside is better for your sleep than the brightest artificial light.
3. Normalize mealtimes.
Digestion is no easy feat. It requires a ton of our body’s focus to break down that avocado you just ate into all the nutrients you need to function. Since digestion is such a “big” event in the daily agenda of your body, eating also becomes a big milestone in your circadian rhythm. Just like children, our bodies thrive on routine. If you tell a four-year-old that they will have snack after playtime, you better have a snack after playtime! And our bodies feel the same way. Regulating your mealtimes from day-to-day can really help signal to your body what’s next. I’m not saying you have to have the same ham and cheese sandwich for lunch every day at 12:07pm. But at least while you’re working to reset your circadian rhythm, if you stick to a general eating schedule—say within a two hour window—it’ll help you get there faster.
4. Avoid napping (just for now).
I know I just lost some of you nap-lovers, but bear with me! Naps are not bad—in fact, research consistently shows that a short afternoon nap can be great for productivity and stress-reduction—but when you’re actively working on resetting your sleep cycle, a nap can throw a wrench in things. If you’re feeling really exhausted in the afternoon (which is understandable since you aren’t sleeping well), try going for a walk, doing some gentle yoga, or changing gears to another kind of work. This isn’t forever. You’ll eventually be able to bring back in your beloved naps.
5. Switch to amber lights after sunset.
We’ve already established that sunlight is queen when it comes to signaling our sleep cycles, so what happens when it’s 7pm in winter and it’s pitch black outside? Most of us flip on a lamp or two, and that bright blue-tinted light signals to our brain that WAIT, WHOA, it’s actually morning, let’s be awake. How do you get around this without going to bed before primetime every night? Amber light bulbs!
You can purchase straight-up amber light bulbs, but we prefer having LED smart bulbs in all of our family room lamps so we can toggle between the color of light—amber in the evening, and regular light during the day. Using amber lights is essentially fooling your brain into thinking that you are stuck in the world’s longest sunset. This was my favorite change of all of the ones I did to reset my sleep cycle! When we switch on the amber lights each evening, I can feel my body relax almost instantly.
6. Limit screen use after sunset.
You all knew this one was coming, right? It’s been well established that the blue light coming off of electronic devices—computers, phones, TVs—can negatively impact our sleep. And now you know why! That blue-quality light signals our hypothalamus that it’s time to be awake. Too bad the vast majority of us spend our evenings winding down by scrolling through Instagram, binge-watching TV, or catching up on computer work.
My recommendation when you’re first trying to reset your circadian rhythm is to totally do without screens after sunset for a while. Yes, it’s extreme, and it’ll be hard at first, but I actually found it to be incredibly freeing after a few days! Once you are back to sleeping well, you can bring back in screens in the evenings, just as long as you (A) make sure to either wear blue-blocking glasses or set the device to the warm night-time setting (it’s called Night Shift on Apple devices) and (B) still do without screens for at least one hour before bedtime.
7. Go to sleep as soon as you are sleepy after sunset.
You skipped your nap earlier so you could get to this point—as soon as that sun dips below the horizon for the evening, your sleep window has opened. In the summer, this means staying awake until much later than maybe you are used to, and yes, I know that in the wintertime in northern areas, this can be early, but bear with me. Our whole goal here is to signal to our bodies that dark=sleep and light=wake, so if your body is getting that right—no matter how early—reward it with what it wants! You don’t have to go to bed at 7pm forever, but for now, embrace sleeping with the cycles of the sun. Don’t wait to get your second wind, because in my experience, that second wind seems to last all the way until 2am. Give your body what it’s asking for here!
But what if you never feel sleepy? Well, then it might be time to bring in some all-natural sleep aids to help usher you along. There are a number of options out there to try (and I’d recommend checking in with your health care professional first, especially if you are taking pharmaceuticals), but my favorite right now is Good Day Chocolate CBD Sleep Supplement.
Each one of these CBD Sleep chocolates has 10mg of organically-grown CBD and 1mg melatonin per piece. The chocolates are really tasty and make for super easy dosing. I tend to start off with two, and that always seems to get me on the sleep train! I take these at the start of my bedtime routine if I’m feeling wired (more on that in a sec), and I keep them in my bedside table so they’re easy to grab if I find myself awake in the middle of the night.
Good Day Chocolate is offering Wholefully readers 20% off with the coupon code CBDWHOLEFULLY on any of their family of CBD chocolates. The Calm CBD chocolate is another favorite of mine!
8. Optimize your bedroom for good sleep.
Increasingly, our bedrooms have become a hub for a lot more than just sleep—we read there, we work there, we watch TV in there. But my challenge for you is to reclaim your bedroom as a sacred space for sleep! What’s this mean? Well, here are my suggestions:
- Decide today that your bedroom is a place for sleep and sex and nothing else. No scrolling Instagram in bed. No binge-watching. No whipping out your laptop to answer emails. Make that bedroom of yours a sacred sleep sanctuary! When you “go to bed,” it needs to be a physical and emotional transition—trust me, this was a huge part of conquering my sleep problems.
- This means removing all electronic devices, if possible. I understand that some work and family situations mean that a phone needs to be nearby, but can you move it to the other side of the room instead of at your bedside table? And if you can, removing your phone from your room completely is a huge win for sacred-ifying your sleep space!
- Cover up any pesky little LED lights with electrical tape—humidifiers, power strips, diffusers, and air purifiers are frequently guilty of emitting sleep-hindering lights.
- Or use a sleep mask—even the smallest amount of light while sleeping has been connected to mental health problems, so I solve this by using a black silk eye mask to sleep with every night. It took a few nights to get used to it, but it’s the best $10 I ever spent!
- Keep your bedroom cool with good air circulation. Most of us sleep better in a cooler bedroom with a light amount of air circulation.
- Try white noise. If you haven’t yet tried sleeping with white noise, you might find that you really like it! White noise can come from a special machine (this is the white noise machine we use in my daughter’s room), a fan, or an app on your phone. Our air purifier is what we use as white noise in our bedroom.
9. Start a bedtime routine.
We’re really just four-year-olds in adult clothes, because just like kids, we need a bedtime routine! It’s doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out event, but just having a few tasks that we do every night goes a long way towards signaling to our bodies that it’s bedtime. We have a great post all about setting up a bedtime routine, but here is the nitty-gritty:
- Take any natural sleep aids you prefer at the beginning of your routine. This is when I enjoy my Good Day Chocolate CBD Sleep Supplement.
- Turn your screens off. Seriously, friends.
- Bring in intentional relaxation—take a bath, read a (paper) book, journal, have a cup of tea, meditate, do restorative yoga, draw.
- Go to bed!
The actions you choose aren’t nearly as important as consistency. Your goal here is to signal to your body every night that it’s time to sleep. It can’t get that signal if you do something different every evening. Here’s an example of bedtime routine that might work for you:
- Put phone on “Do Not Disturb” and place in the charging station.
- Change into pajamas.
- Enjoy a cup of chamomile tea and two Good Day Chocolate CBD Sleep chocolates while journaling about your day (under amber lights).
- Spray pillow with lavender linen spray.
- Go to bed!
Circadian Rhythm Setting: Extreme Edition
Alright, so you’ve done all of this and aren’t seeing much improvement—or you want to fast track the reset of your circadian rhythm. Well, I’ve got a suggestion for you that might seem silly: go camping!
And I’m not talking “wheeling up your luxury RV into a campground” camping. I’m talking no electricity, no devices, sleep-under-the-stars (or in a tent)h primitive camping. Just a night or two out in the wilderness living without artificial lights (and with firelight in the evenings) can really jump start your sleep cycle back to normal. I’ve personally experienced the benefits of this! I’ve noticed that by the second or third night on a camping trip, I am getting some of the best sleep of my life. It’s one of the reasons I love camping so much!
I hope this has given you some ideas for how to get your sleep cycle back on track! You don’t have to do everything listed here, but just implementing a few of these actions could really help you get on the path to better sleep. Sleep well!