top of page
  • Dr. Norbert Martin, DPT

How To Hack Your Circadian Rhythm for Better Health and Performance


Circadian rhythm and circadian clock

Do you want to sleep better, feel more energetic, boost your mood, and enhance your productivity? If yes, then you need to pay attention to your circadian rhythm. This is the natural cycle of biological processes that occurs in approximately 24-hour intervals. It regulates many aspects of your health and performance, such as sleep, metabolism, mood, immunity, and cognition.


Your circadian rhythm is influenced by various factors, such as light exposure, social cues, meal timing, and physical activity. By aligning your lifestyle with your body’s natural clock, you can optimize your health and performance and enjoy a better quality of life. In this article, you will learn:


  • What circadian rhythms are and how they work.

  • How circadian rhythms affect your health and performance.

  • What factors influence your circadian rhythms.

  • How to hack your circadian rhythm by following some simple habits.


The Science Behind Circadian Rhythm

Circadian rhythms are generated by a complex system of molecular clocks that operate in every cell of your body. These clocks are composed of genes and proteins that oscillate in a feedback loop, turning on and off in response to various signals.


The master clock that coordinates all the other clocks in your body is located in a group of about 20,000 nerve cells (neurons) that form a structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus of the brain. The SCN receives light cues from the eyes and synchronizes the peripheral clocks with the external environment.


The SCN also regulates other hormones and bodily functions that follow a circadian rhythm, such as body temperature, blood pressure, digestion, immune response, and gene expression. The SCN does this by sending signals to other parts of the brain and body that control these processes.

The master clock coordinates biological clocks from received light.
Credit: NIGMS


Impact on Health and Performance

Your circadian rhythm affects many aspects of your health and performance, such as:

  • Sleep Quality and Duration: Your circadian rhythm determines when you feel sleepy and when you feel alert. It also influences the stages of sleep that you go through during the night, such as light sleep, deep sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Each stage of sleep has different functions and benefits for your health, such as memory consolidation, tissue repair, hormone secretion, and emotional processing. A healthy circadian rhythm can help you fall asleep faster, sleep deeper, and wake up refreshed.


  • Mood Regulation and Mental Well-being: Your circadian rhythm affects your mood and emotions by influencing the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in your brain. These neurotransmitters are involved in regulating your feelings of happiness, motivation, reward, and stress. A healthy circadian rhythm can help you maintain a positive mood, cope with stress better, and prevent mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.


  • Metabolic Health and Weight Management: Your circadian rhythm affects your metabolism by influencing the levels of hormones such as insulin, glucagon, leptin, and ghrelin in your body. These hormones are involved in regulating your blood sugar levels, appetite, hunger, and satiety. A healthy circadian rhythm can help you balance your energy intake and expenditure, prevent insulin resistance and diabetes, and maintain a healthy weight.


  • Cognitive Function and Productivity: Your circadian rhythm affects your cognitive function by influencing the activity of brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, and thalamus. These brain regions are involved in various cognitive processes such as attention, memory, learning, decision making, creativity, and problem solving. A healthy circadian rhythm can help you improve your focus, concentration, recall, reasoning, innovation, and efficiency.


Mood Regulation and Mental Well-being

Factors Influencing Circadian Rhythm

Your circadian rhythm is influenced by various factors that can either enhance or disrupt its alignment with the external environment. Some of these factors are:


  • Light Exposure: Light is the most important cue for your circadian rhythm, as it signals your brain when to be alert and when to be sleepy. Exposure to bright light in the morning can help you reset your circadian rhythm and synchronize it with the external environment. It can also help you feel more alert and energized throughout the day. You can get more natural light in the morning by opening the curtains, going outside, or using a light therapy device. However, exposure to artificial light at night, such as from electronic devices, can interfere with your melatonin production and keep you awake longer.


  • Social Cues: Social cues are another factor that can influence your circadian rhythm, as they can affect your behavior and motivation. For example, interacting with other people, engaging in social activities, or following social norms can affect your sleep and wake times, your mealtimes, and your work and leisure schedules. However, social cues can also conflict with your natural circadian rhythm, such as when you must adjust to different time zones, work shifts, or social obligations.


  • Meal Timing: Meal timing is another factor that may influence your circadian rhythm, as it can affect your metabolism and hormone levels. For example, eating at regular intervals can help you stabilize your blood sugar levels, control your appetite, and optimize your energy levels. It can also help you align your circadian rhythm with the external environment and prevent metabolic disorders. However, eating at irregular or inappropriate times can disrupt your circadian rhythm, such as when you eat late at night, or binge on unhealthy foods.


  • Physical Activity: Physical activity is another factor that can influence your circadian rhythm, as it can affect your mood, energy, and body temperature. For example, exercising regularly can help you improve your circadian rhythm by boosting your mood, energy, metabolism, immunity, and cognitive function. However, exercising too late in the day can make it harder to fall asleep, as it raises your body temperature and cortisol levels.


Strategies for Optimizing Circadian Rhythm

By understanding the factors that influence your circadian rhythm, you can adopt some strategies to optimize it and enhance your health and performance. Some of these strategies are:

Light Exposure and Sleep

  • Get bright light in the morning: Exposure to bright light in the morning can help you reset your circadian rhythm and synchronize it with the external environment. It can also help you feel more alert and energized throughout the day. You can get more natural light in the morning by opening the curtains, going outside, or using a light therapy device.

  • Reduce evening light exposure: Exposure to artificial light in the evening can delay your circadian rhythm and suppress your melatonin production. It can also make it harder for you to fall asleep and reduce your sleep quality. You can reduce artificial light exposure in the evening by turning off electronics, using dimmer switches, or wearing an eye mask.


Meal Timing and Diet


Clock made of food

  • Follow a regular meal schedule: Eating at regular intervals can help you stabilize your blood sugar levels, control your appetite, and optimize your energy levels. It can also help you align your circadian rhythm with the external environment and prevent metabolic disorders. You can follow a regular meal schedule by eating breakfast within an hour of waking up, eating lunch around noon, and eating dinner at least three hours before bedtime. Nonetheless, the link between meal times and the circadian rhythm has not been sufficiently investigated.


  • Avoid late-night eating: Eating late at night can disrupt your circadian rhythm by interfering with your melatonin production and digestion. It can also increase your risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. You can avoid late-night eating by setting a cut-off time for food intake, such as 8 p.m., and sticking to it.


  • Choose nutrient-dense foods: Eating nutrient-dense foods can help you support your circadian rhythm by providing the essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that your body needs to function properly. You can choose nutrient-dense foods by eating a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, and water.


Establishing a Consistent Sleep Schedule

  • Set a regular bedtime and wake-up time: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help you establish a consistent sleep schedule that matches your natural circadian rhythm. It can also help you improve your sleep quality and duration by allowing your body to go through the optimal stages of sleep. You can set a regular bedtime and wake-up time by using an alarm clock, avoiding naps during the day, and creating a relaxing bedtime routine.


  • Avoid weekend disruptions: Changing your sleep schedule on weekends can disrupt your circadian rhythm and cause you to experience social jet lag. Social jet lag is the mismatch between your internal clock and the external environment that occurs when you stay up late or sleep in on weekends. It can cause you to feel tired, irritable, and unproductive on Mondays. You can avoid weekend disruptions by maintaining a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week and limiting the difference between weekday and weekend sleep times to no more than one hour.


  • Nap wisely: Napping during the day can be beneficial for your circadian rhythm if done correctly. Napping can help you boost your alertness, energy, and mood by providing a short burst of restorative sleep. However, napping too long or too late in the day can interfere with your circadian rhythm by affecting your ability to fall asleep at night or reducing the quality of your nighttime sleep. You can nap wisely by limiting your naps to 10 to 20 minutes and taking them before 3 p.m.


Evening Wind-Down Routine

  • Relax and reduce stress: Relaxing and reducing stress in the evening can help you improve your circadian rhythm by lowering your cortisol levels and increasing your melatonin levels. It can also help you calm your mind and body and prepare for sleep. You can relax and reduce stress in the evening by practicing some relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery.


  • Reduce screen time before bed: Reducing screen time before bed can help you improve your circadian rhythm by minimizing your exposure to blue light and stimulating content. It can also help you avoid distractions and interruptions that can keep you awake longer. You can reduce screen time before bed by setting a digital curfew, such as an hour before bedtime, and turning off or silencing your electronic devices. You can also use a blue light filter or amber glasses if you need to use your devices at night.


  • Incorporate relaxing activities: Incorporating relaxing activities in your evening wind-down routine can help you improve your circadian rhythm by enhancing your mood, promoting relaxation, and inducing sleepiness. You can incorporate relaxing activities in your evening wind-down routine by doing something that you enjoy, such as reading a book, listening to music, meditating, or journaling.


Physical Activity Timing

  • Find the optimal exercise time for performance: Finding the optimal exercise time for performance can help you improve your circadian rhythm by aligning your physical activity with your body’s natural peaks and troughs of energy, alertness, and temperature. It can also help you maximize the benefits of exercise for your health and performance. You can find the optimal exercise time for performance by experimenting with different times of the day and observing how you feel and perform. Generally, morning exercise can help you boost your mood and metabolism, afternoon exercise can help you improve your strength and endurance, and evening exercise can help you relieve stress and tension.


  • Balance evening workouts with rhythm considerations: Balancing evening workouts with rhythm considerations can help you improve your circadian rhythm by avoiding the negative effects of exercising too close to bedtime. It can also help you optimize your recovery and adaptation from exercise. You can balance evening workouts with rhythm considerations by finishing your workout at least three hours before bedtime, choosing low-intensity or moderate-intensity exercises over high-intensity exercises, cooling down properly after exercise, and hydrating well throughout the day.


Exercise timing

Travel and Shift Work: Circadian Disruptions

Traveling across different time zones or working outside of the normal daylight hours can disrupt your circadian rhythm and cause you to experience jet lag or shift work disorder. Again, jet lag is the mismatch between your internal clock and the external environment that occurs when you travel across different time zones. Yet, shift work disorder is the chronic disruption of your circadian rhythm that occurs when you work during the night or rotate between different shifts. Both jet lag and shift work disorder can cause symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, irritability, digestive problems, and increased risk of chronic diseases. Some strategies to minimize the effects of travel and shift work on your circadian rhythm are:


  • Jet Lag: To prevent or reduce jet lag, you can try to adjust your sleep schedule before traveling, expose yourself to bright light at appropriate times during travel, use melatonin supplements to facilitate sleep onset, stay hydrated and avoid alcohol and caffeine during travel, and adopt the local time zone as soon as possible upon arrival.

  • Shift Work: To cope with shift work, you can try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule even on days off, use blackout curtains or eye masks to block out light during daytime sleep, use earplugs or white noise machines to block out noise during daytime sleep, avoid bright light exposure before bedtime, and use light therapy or caffeine to stay alert during night shifts.


Technology and Circadian Rhythm

Technology can have both positive and negative effects on your circadian rhythm, depending on how you use it. Technology can emit blue light that can interfere with your melatonin production and keep you awake longer. Technology can also provide stimulating or disturbing content that can affect your mental health and prevent you from falling asleep. However, technology can also offer tools and applications that can help you monitor and improve your circadian rhythm. Some examples of technology that can affect your circadian rhythm are:


  • Blue Light Emission from Screens: Electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, and TVs emit blue light that can suppress your melatonin production and delay your circadian phase. Blue light emission from screens is especially harmful at night, as it interferes with your natural sleep cycle and reduces your sleep quality.


  • Night Mode and Blue Light Filter Applications: Night mode and blue light filter applications are software features that can reduce the amount of blue light emitted by your screens and make them more comfortable for your eyes. Night mode and blue light filter applications can help you improve your circadian rhythm by minimizing your exposure to blue light and facilitating your sleep onset. You can activate night mode or blue light filter applications on your devices manually or automatically based on the time of day.


  • Sleep Tracking Apps and Gadgets: Sleep tracking apps and gadgets are devices that can monitor your sleep patterns and provide you with feedback and recommendations on how to improve your sleep quality. Sleep tracking apps and gadgets can help you improve your circadian rhythm by helping you understand your sleep habits and identify potential problems or areas of improvement. You can use sleep tracking apps or gadgets on your smartphone, smartwatch, fitness tracker, or wearable device.


Reversible modulation of the circadian clock using chronophotopharmacology. Using light to interconvert two isomers of a photo-responsive small molecule, it is possible to pace cellular time. While irradiation with violet light extends the normal 24-hour clock to 28-hour, green light switches off this effect and brings the clock back to normal. Credit: Issey Takahashi
Reversible modulation of the circadian clock using chronophotopharmacology. Using light to interconvert two isomers of a photo-responsive small molecule, it is possible to pace cellular time. While irradiation with violet light extends the normal 24-hour clock to 28-hour, green light switches off this effect and brings the clock back to normal. Credit: Issey Takahashi


Mindfulness and Circadian Rhythm

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity, and acceptance. Mindfulness can help you improve your circadian rhythm by enhancing your awareness of your body’s signals and needs, reducing your stress levels and cortisol levels, and promoting relaxation and sleep quality. Some examples of mindfulness practices that can benefit your circadian rhythm are:


  • Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness meditation is a technique that involves focusing your attention on a chosen object, such as your breath, a word, a sound, or a sensation, and observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment or reaction. Mindfulness meditation can help you improve your circadian rhythm by calming your mind and body, lowering your blood pressure and heart rate, increasing your melatonin levels, and inducing sleepiness.


  • Breathwork: Breathwork is a technique that involves controlling your breathing patterns to achieve various physical and mental benefits. Breathwork can help you improve your circadian rhythm by regulating your nervous system, reducing your stress and anxiety levels, balancing your hormones, and relaxing your muscles.


  • Stress Reduction: Stress reduction is a technique that involves identifying and managing the sources of stress in your life. Stress reduction can help you improve your circadian rhythm by lowering your cortisol levels, improving your mood and emotional stability, enhancing your immune system, and preventing inflammation.


Special Considerations

Your circadian rhythm can change across different stages of life or under certain conditions that require special attention or care. Some examples of these special considerations are:


  • Circadian Rhythm Changes Across Lifespan: Your circadian rhythm changes as you age, due to various factors such as hormonal changes, lifestyle changes, or health issues. For example, children tend to have earlier circadian phases than adults, meaning they feel sleepy earlier and wake up earlier. Older adults tend to have shorter and more fragmented sleep cycles than younger adults, meaning they sleep less and wake up more often during the night.


  • Rhythm-Related Disorders: Some people may suffer from rhythm-related disorders that affect their ability to maintain a normal circadian rhythm. These disorders include delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD), which is characterized by a delayed onset of sleep and difficulty waking up in the morning; advanced sleep phase disorder (ASPD), which is characterized by an advanced onset of sleep and early awakening in the morning; non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder (N24SWD), which is characterized by a shifting sleep-wake cycle that does not match the 24-hour day; and irregular sleep-wake disorder (ISWD), which is characterized by a lack of a clear sleep-wake pattern .


  • Consulting Professionals: If you have trouble maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm or experience symptoms of rhythm-related disorders, you may benefit from consulting professionals who can help you diagnose and treat your condition. These professionals include sleep specialists, who can perform tests such as polysomnography or actigraphy to measure your sleep patterns; nutritionists, who can advise you on how to eat according to your circadian rhythm; and psychologists or therapists, who can help you cope with the psychological or emotional aspects of circadian rhythm disruption.


Final Thoughts

Your circadian rhythm is the natural cycle of biological processes that occurs in approximately 24-hour intervals. It regulates many aspects of your health and performance, such as sleep, metabolism, mood, immunity, and cognition. By aligning your lifestyle with your body’s natural clock, you can optimize your health and performance and enjoy a better quality of life.


In this article, we have explained what circadian rhythms are, how they work, and what factors influence them. We have also shared some tips and tricks on how to hack your circadian rhythm by following some simple habits that can improve your sleep quality, energy levels, mood regulation, metabolic health, and cognitive function.


We hope this article has helped you understand more about circadian rhythms and how to improve them. We encourage you to try out some of the tips and tricks that we have shared and share your feedback or experiences with us. Thank you for reading this article. 😊


References
  1. Buhr ED, Takahashi JS. Molecular components of the Mammalian circadian clock. Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2013;(217):3-27. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-25950-0_1. PMID: 23604473; PMCID: PMC3762864.

  2. National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Circadian Rhythms. Updated October 2023. Accessed August 26, 2023.

  3. Zhang EE, Kay SA. Clocks not winding down: unravelling circadian networks. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 2010;11(11):764-776. doi:10.1038/nrm2995 PMID: 20966970.

  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Twelve simple tips to improve your sleep. Updated December 18, 2019. Accessed August 26, 2023.

  5. National Sleep Foundation. How to Use Light to Reset Your Circadian Rhythm and Sleep Better at Night. Accessed August 26, 2023.

  6. National Sleep Foundation. How Exercise Affects Your Sleep. Accessed August 26, 2023.

  7. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Jet Lag Disorder. Accessed August 26, 2023.

  8. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Shift Work Disorder. Accessed August 26, 2023.

  9. Mayo Clinic Staff. Mindfulness exercises. Updated April 4, 2018. Accessed August 26, 2023.

  10. Kolarski D, Miró-Vinyals C, Sugiyama A, Srivastava A, Ono D, Nagai Y, Iida M, Itami K, Tama F, Szymanski W, Hirota T, Feringa BL. Reversible modulation of circadian time with chronophotopharmacology. Nat Commun. 2021 May 26;12(1):3164. doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-23301-x. PMID: 34039965; PMCID: PMC8155176.


Comments


Subscribe to Our Blog

Thanks for subscribing!

bottom of page