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If you have difficulty sleeping, you’re hardly alone — an estimated 2 out of 3 adults suffer from sleep problems. And research suggests that sleep problems become increasingly more problematic during the fall and winter. Why is that, why does it matter, and how can you improve your sleep this fall? It all comes down to your circadian rhythm and lifestyle habits. If you want to sleep better and experience the benefits of improved sleep—including a stronger, more resilient immune system during fall’s cold and flu season—it’s time to hack your circadian rhythm.

Circadian Rhythm 101

Circadian RhythmThe circadian rhythm is a natural, 24-hour internal biological clock that regulates the timing of various physiological processes and behaviors in living organisms, including humans.

Harvard’s doctors call it the central pacemaker in the brain. “Known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus…this system is critical for the coordination of bodily functions and to anticipate the daily cycling of environmental and behavioral demands,” reports Harvard.

This so-called pacemaker or clock is primarily synchronized with the day-night cycle, responding to environmental cues like light and darkness. It plays a crucial role in coordinating your:

  • sleep-wake cycle
  • body temperature
  • hormone production
  • and other essential functions

Maintaining a well-aligned circadian rhythm is vital for overall health and well-being, as disruptions to this internal clock can lead to sleep disorders, mood disturbances, impaired cognitive function, and an increased risk of various health issues, including metabolic disorders, cardiovascular problems, and even certain cancers.

Unfortunately, the changing seasons is one such disruption to your internal clock.

How the Circadian Rhythm and Your Sleep Quality Impact Your Immune System in the Fall

Circadian RhythmSleep is essential for the proper functioning of the immune system as it plays a critical role in immune response and defense against infections.

During sleep, the body undergoes various processes that bolster immune function, including the production of immune cells like T cells and cytokines, which are essential for fighting off pathogens.

Adequate sleep also helps regulate the balance of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines, ensuring a well-coordinated immune response.

Chronic sleep deprivation can weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and less capable of mounting an effective immune defense. Prioritizing quality sleep is crucial for maintaining a robust immune system, reducing the risk of illness, and supporting overall health and well-being — especially during the fall season when instances of the common cold and flu skyrocket.

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Why Do Sleep Patterns Change in the Fall?

Sleep patterns can change in the fall for several reasons, primarily related to the changing environmental and natural factors that occur during this season:

  • Daylight Hours: Days become shorter, and the nights become longer. This reduction in natural daylight can trigger changes in the body’s internal circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep-wake cycles. You may find it harder to wake up in the morning due to the darker mornings, and this can affect your overall sleep quality and duration.
  • Temperature Changes: Fall often brings cooler temperatures, and as the weather becomes colder, people may adjust their sleeping environment. They might use heavier blankets or adjust their thermostats to maintain a comfortable temperature in their bedrooms. These changes can impact sleep quality and comfort.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): SAD is a type of depression that occurs seasonally, and it can disrupt sleep patterns. Symptoms of SAD can include oversleeping, difficulty waking up in the morning, and increased fatigue.
  • Time Changes: In some regions, Daylight Saving Time (DST) transitions occur in the fall, typically moving the clocks back by one hour. This shift can initially disrupt sleep patterns as the body adjusts to the new time schedule, and it may take some time for individuals to adapt.
  • Lifestyle Changes: Fall often brings changes in daily routines and activities. For example, children may start a new school year, and adults may return to work after summer vacations. These changes in daily schedules can influence sleep patterns and require adjustment.
  • Food and Diet: Seasonal changes can also affect eating habits. Fall is associated with specific foods and beverages, such as pumpkin spice-flavored treats and hot beverages like cocoa or tea. Consuming certain foods and drinks close to bedtime can impact sleep, especially if they contain caffeine or are heavy and difficult to digest.

How to Improve Your Sleep and Restore Your Circadian Rhythm

Circadian RhythmIf you find your sleep quality starting to suffer this fall, reset your circadian rhythm. This is also known as “circadian entrainment,” and can be achieved by making specific lifestyle adjustments and following a consistent routine.

Start with making gradual adjustments. Move your bedtime and wake-up time by 15-30 minutes earlier or later each day until you reach your desired schedule. This gradual approach minimizes disruption to your body clock.

When you wake up the next day, expose yourself to natural light. Natural light is a powerful cue for your circadian rhythm. Spend time outdoors during the day, especially in the morning, to signal to your body that it’s time to be awake and alert. Conversely, reduce exposure to bright artificial light, especially in the evening and before bedtime.

Super-charge your wake-up routine: Engaging in regular physical activity can help regulate your circadian rhythm, but avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime, as it can be stimulating. Instead, exercise in the morning to jumpstart your energy levels and expedite the transition to a better circadian rhythm.

As you ease into the evening hours, try and switch off the TV, your smartphone, etc. The blue light emitted by screens from phones, tablets, and computers can interfere with your circadian rhythm by suppressing the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Avoid screens at least an hour before bedtime, or use blue light filters on your devices.

Likewise, establish a relaxing pre-sleep routine to signal to your body that it’s time to wind down. This might include activities like reading, taking a warm bath, or practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation. Before you know it, you’ll see deeper, more quality sleep throughout the fall and winter season!

NOTE: If you continue to struggle with resetting your circadian rhythm despite these efforts, or if you think that you might have a sleep disorder, consult a healthcare professional or a sleep specialist for guidance and potential interventions.

References:

  • https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/sleep-facts-statistics
  • https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8064650/
  • https://hms.harvard.edu/news/circadian-rhythm-asthma
  • https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20664079/