Did you know…
- 50-70 million American adults have a sleep disorder.
- 4.7% reported falling asleep while driving at least one time in the past 30 days.
- Insomnia is the most common specific sleep disorder.
- Short bouts are reported by about 30% of adults and long term chronic insomnia is reported by 10%.
- 35.3% adults report less than 7 hours of sleep each day.
- 100,000 deaths occur each year in US hospitals due to medical errors with sleep deprivation a contributing factor.
Melatonin, also known by most people as “the sleep hormone”, is an important and master hormone in the body. Insomnia is one symptom of melatonin deficiency. The main cause of melatonin deficiency is a faulty circadian clock (CC) or circadian rhythm.
What is the circadian rhythm?
Every organ, cell and gene is part of the CC, but, the cycle itself is run by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This is a collection of 20,000 cells located in the hypothalamus at the center of the base of the brain.
The SCN is indirectly connected to several glands throughout the body, including the pituitary gland, adrenal glands, thyroid gland, the reproductive system and the pineal gland.
The SCN is essential to the health and daily rhythm of the body. ALL cellular activity throughout the body occurs in a circadian rhythm, including energy, metabolism, energy or nutrient sensing, maintenance, repair, division, communication and secretion. In order to have healthy body, and healthy melatonin production, it is necessary to have a healthy circadian clock. As you can see, a healthy SCN is necessary for the healthy functioning of the human body.
The light dark cycle
Light and darkness are at the core of SCN and CC functioning. As daylight penetrates the retina, the SCN signals the pineal gland to stop producing melatonin, speeds breathing, increases the heart rate and raises the body temperature. Upon opening the eyes, the digestive motility increases and the adrenals release cortisol to energize the body and increase alertness.
In the evening, as darkness sets in, the body prepares for sleep by dropping the body temperature and producing and releasing melatonin.
What disrupts the light/dark cycle?
As you can see, the light/dark cycle is essential to a healthy SCN and the proper functioning of the CC. So, what activities disrupt this important cycle?
- Improper lighting at the wrong time of day will disrupt the circadian clock.
- Bright screens, electronics, blue light and bright light at night create insomnia by delaying melatonin production.
- Indoor light during the day is not bright enough, when compared to proper outdoor sunlight. In other words, when we spend our entire days under indoor, artificial light, we are not getting enough light, because outdoor light is much more intense and necessary to proper SCN/CC functioning.
How to wind your internal clock
If you’re suffering from insomnia, the first thing you need to do is ensure that your SCN/CC is functioning properly. Here are some tips:
- Make sure you’re sleepy when you climb in bed.
- Don’t toss and turn. Give yourself 20 minutes to fall asleep. After that, get up and do something quiet, like reading a book.
- Stay away from electronics, and bright screens. Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Don’t eat, watch television or work on the computer while in your room. Your bedroom is only for sleeping and sex.
- Your bedroom should be dark and quiet. Keep it at a cool temperature.
- Avoid bright lights at night.
- Stay away from electronics 30 to 60 minutes before your scheduled bedtime.
- Don’t eat right before bed. It’s best to eat at least 2 – 3 hours before bed.
- Spend time outside, in sunlight everyday, or as often as possible.
- Exercise regularly improves sleep quality. Individuals of all ages fall asleep faster and sleep better with regular physical activity
- Only drink caffeine in the morning. Caffeine takes up to 9 hours to dissipate from your system.
- Avoid consuming alcohol before bedtime.
- Reduce your fluid intake before bedtime.
- The SCN/CC love schedules and regularity. Eat meals at the same time every day. When meals are set on a regular schedule, the CC functions more efficiently.
- Eat a diet high in foods containing melatonin and tryptophan, a precursor to melatonin.
When researching the SCN and Circadian Rhythm for my thesis, I came across a wonderful and user friendly book called the Circadian Code by: Satchin Panda. Dr. Panda, is a professor at the Salk Institute and a founding member of the Center for Circadian Biology at the University of California, San Diego (Panda, 2018). Dr. Panda’s first breakthrough was as a member of the team that discovered blue light sensors in the retina, which signal the brain when it is morning or night .
Despite his scientific background, Dr. Satchin does a great job explaining the SCN and CC. His explanations are well presented and easy to understand. If you are having trouble sleeping, with a brief bout of insomnia, or maybe even dealing with chronic insomnia, I highly recommend his book With that said, his book isn’t just for people suffering insomnia. In fact, everyone should read it, knowing how important the SCN/CC is to the very functioning our our entire body.