Circadian Rhythm & Blues: How Sleep is Affecting your Mental Health

By: Megan Landean, M. Ed.

We are currently living a new normal. This new normal, for most of us, is not defined by needing to be anywhere at any specific time, allowing us to sleep in, stay up late and break our old routines. Because of this, many of us are seeing disruptions in our circadian rhythm health.

What is a circadian rhythm? According to the National Institute for General Medical Sciences, circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow our daily cycle. They affect our hormones, temperature and, most known, our sleep/wake cycles. For example, we know that nighttime is for sleeping and daytime is for being awake, alert and engaging because of our circadian rhythm. These are impacted not only from our nerves, but also from our environment. Staying up late into the night on your phone, or watching tv, is a great example of how our brains can be tricked by our environment to think that it is still daytime out.

So, you are probably thinking “big deal”, right? Your life is different now so it’s okay to stay up late and sleep in more? Yes and no. Creating minor changes (and hour here or there) isn’t going to drastically impact your health. However, major changes can leave a big mark, even if it’s only for these few months of quarantine. Irregular circadian rhythms have been linked to “sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder (SAD)” (NIH, 2020).

How do you improve your circadian rhythm health? There are several tools to help adjust your sleep/wake cycles to improve your circadian rhythm health, or keep it healthy while in quarantine:

  • Keep as close to a normal sleep schedule as possible. You can adjust this by an hour or so on either end. Keeping close to your non-quarantine sleep schedule will not only help with your circadian health, but also make going back to work a lot easier.
  • Try using bright light therapy. If you’re having difficulty getting to sleep or waking up, this may be a great tool. Amazon sells therapy lights for around $30. These lights, according to UCLA, can help advance or delay your sleep cycle.
  • Avoid late night screen time. It’s incredibly easy to “fall down a rabbit hole” on your phone nowadays or stay up late to finish the last couple episodes of a season on Netflix. Being strict with your screen time is important for your circadian health. Make a rule not to have screen time 30 or so minutes before you plan on going to sleep. Instead, try reading a book, coloring, knitting or any other non-screen hobby.

Some of us might be experiencing that big change of coming back to work and being a bit more regimented, but others are not. Regardless of where you are in your “quarantine life”, keeping your circadian rhythm regular is imperative for healthier you.

Sources: Global Wellness Summit, NIH, UCLA