Ever wonder how all of humankind somehow manages to fall asleep after the sun goes down, snoozing - more or less - all night, and waking naturally at some point the next morning? Sure, some people are ‘night owls’ (why is it always the moody creative types?), but even so, even they usually run out of steam at some point in the wee hours. And what about timezones? Say you travel from Ireland to Australia. You’ll spend the first frustrating couple of nights more awake than you’ve ever been in your life. But then, as if by magic, you’ll adjust - catching up with those lost 10 hours, and getting sleepy when the sun sets over Summer Bay.
The reason we all end up aligning with the rise and setting of the sun is down to our internal body clocks, known as our ‘circadian rhythms’. Ultimately, we’re pre-programmed to be alert by day and rest up by night, as the word itself suggests; ‘circadian’ comes from the Latin circā(about / approximately) and diēs(day). This natural clock is roughly 24 hours long, and doesn’t just affect us humans; plants, animals and fungi too adhere to it too. The circadian rhythm ultimately allows us to be ready for regular changes in our environment. Think of hairier hunter / gatherer times; it made sense for our ancestors to be alert and on the hunt for food and shelter during the day, and able to recharge their batteries under the cover of darkness at night.
But how does it all work? Well, the circadian rhythm is controlled by a clever hormonal process within the body. As our eyes respond to the setting sun, they send a signal to a small but important region at the base of the brain called the hypothalamus. As well as the circadian rhythm, it controls body temperature, hunger and thirst, as well as a whole host of other metabolic processes. Once the hypothalamus gets the memo that day is ending, it oversees the release of a hormone called melatonin, produced by the pineal gland. Melatonin causes the body to feel tired, and stays elevated in our systems for around 12 hours. This is meant to ensure not only that we nod off easily, but that we stay asleep all night, feeling refreshed and energised the next day.
That’s all well and good, we hear you say, but lots of people have issues with sleep. Some don’t feel tired at night, others are constantly exhausted, while many find themselves consistently wide-eyed at 4am. There are lots of reasons why this might happen, the aforementioned jet lag being one. Your body clock gets confused by the time difference, and doesn’t know when to release that sweet melatonin. Shift work is another culprit. Night workers often find that even when they lie down to sleep in the morning, they can’t nod off. It makes sense, since their bodies are naturally aligned with day and night, making an 8pm start hella confusing for their poor clocks.
Another potential reason people suffer from sleeplessness is an overconsumption of blue light. Produced by the sun during the day, it’s part of the reason we’re able to stay focused and alert. But it’s also emitted by the many digital devices that have become part of our modern lifestyles; phones, tablets and laptops. It makes sense that if we’re gazing at screens well into the evening and night, our melatonin levels might waver, and our sleep is disrupted. Luckily, there are several things you can do to help keep your body clock in check.
The first thing you can do to stop confusing your circadian rhythm is cut out screen time in the evenings. We’re all guilty of picking up the phone from our bedside locker for a ‘quick scroll’ - only to put it back down two hours later. Try to get into a habit of minimising screen time from 6pm onwards, and avoiding it altogether after you’ve gone to bed. Another tip is to invest in a special lamp that treats Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). These delightful lights mimic sunshine’s effects on our body, so if for example you’ve to catch an early flight, you can set it to wake you in the wee hours. Your body will prefer to believe the day has begun, rather than be woken by the dreaded alarm of doom! SAD lamps are beneficial during dreary winter months too, when many people start to feel lethargic and irritable. Finally, if you’re one of the many employees who spend their working day in front of a computer, a special filter will reduce the amount of artificial blue light you absorb, meaning less confusion for your circadian rhythm. Ambr glasses are engrained with a pigment that blocks over 55% of blue wavelengths, meaning your body is more likely to produce a healthy amount of melatonin when the sun sets, setting you up for a delicious night’s sleep. Check out our full range here.