Tick, Tick, Tick…whether you realize it or not, your inner clock is being affected by the changing season, and it all has to do with what is called the circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is the 24-hour cycle that your body runs on that monitors and regulates your sleep patterns.1 The driver of this cycle is daylight—the amount of daylight that reaches your eyes.
During the summer months, there is more daylight because the days are longer, and so we typically sleep less. The extra daylight that reaches our eyes keeps us alert and active for more hours each day. You may notice that during the summer months you take fewer naps, are less drowsy during the day, and sleep fewer hours at night.
However, with the approaching fall and winter seasons, the daylight hours slowly begin to shorten. Your body receives this signal through your eyes and the amount of light that reaches them. As the sun sets, you will produce a hormone called melatonin, which causes you to start feeling relaxed and sleepy.
During the long days of summer, your melatonin level doesn’t begin to rise until late in the evening, because the sun sets later. However, during the shorter days of fall and winter, you may have a melatonin rise in the late afternoon, as the daylight begins to fade. This is a signal to your body that it is time to sleep.
All this is very natural: Our bodies were designed to operate on this biological cycle of sleeping more in the fall and winter and less in the spring and summer. However, something has happened that has thrown that natural cycle off and has caused declining health.
Can you guess what it is?
Electric light has altered our body’s ability to effectively monitor appropriate sleep cycles. If the days are shorter and there is less light, we can simply turn on bright lights and stifle our melatonin production. We lose our natural circadian rhythm and often end up abusing our bodies and ignoring our need for sleep.
Fooling our bodies with artificial light every now and then is fine. But few of us do this “every now and then.” For many of us, pushing our bodies to keep functioning long after dark is status quo. The problem is that this can cause dangerous health problems.
Are You Sleeping Enough?
If you are not getting the amount of sleep you need, your body will tell you. Many of us, however, have grown so accustomed to the symptoms of sleep deprivation that we do not even realize there is a problem.
For example, do you often feel drowsy during the day or fall asleep while reading or during other activities when you are still and quiet? Perhaps you get drowsy while driving. Do you need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning? Do you fall asleep almost immediately when your head hits the pillow?
Believe it or not, these are all signs that you are not getting enough sleep! And yet, most people would be shocked to find out that this is not normal behavior for people who get plenty of sleep.
Beyond just extra sleepiness, however, sleep deprivation can cause other, more serious health issues. Weight gain, heart disease (such as high blood pressure), and a compromised immune system (meaning you are less able to fight off viruses and infections) are some of the more dangerous side effects of not sleeping enough. Being sleepy during the day may be seen as simply inconvenient, but heart disease can cause an early death.
The solution is to pay attention to how much sleep you are getting, and then take steps to increase that amount if you find that you are not getting enough rest. Ideally, you should be getting between seven and eight hours of sleep. If you do not think you have room in your schedule for that much time in bed, consider the time it will take to deal with the illness that can result from not sleeping enough. Wouldn’t you rather sleep than be sick?
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