Circadian Rhythm – Get Outside!

Are you feeling tired? Do you feel like you have brain fog? Don’t have the endurance you once had?Sleep quality falling apart? There are lots of reasons why these things may be true but one underlying problem that I reliably see in patients coming into Optimal Human Health is a dysfunctional circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythms are hard wired into nearly all animals and plants but is fragile. Each 24 hour cycle sees remarkable changes in physical and mental activity, behavior, hormone secretion and at the cellular level gene expression that keep your body running efficiently day after day. The circadian rhythm has an effect on ALL metabolic processes and if we want to live optimally, we need this system to work perfectly. Unfortunately, our modern day lives are filled with inputs that can disrupt this rhythm and if allowed will decrease performance and promote illness.

The most extreme example of circadian rhythm disruption exists in night shift workers. Women and men that are forced to stay up at night and expose themselves to bright lights while the body naturally wants to sleep. While critical to our modern infrastructure shift work is associated with higher rates of cancer, hormone disruption, diabetes, heart disease and psychological disturbance. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to subject our bodies and minds to this abuse but newer evidence suggests that even subtle disturbance in circadian rhythm can have profound impacts on our health and performance. If we want to optimize our performance we must take a look at our behaviors and the light that surrounds them.

If you consider that electricity wasn’t common in homes until the 1930s and LED lights are an even newer input for our brains, the light we subject ourselves to at night and even during the day is extremely foreign to our nervous system. Think of what life was like before we had electricity. Up with the sun and down with darkness. Our brains get signals through the optic nerve from the light it is exposed to. Morning sun exposure helps the body to wake up and get ready for the day. The morning sun has a reliable light pattern and intensity that the brain can recognize and a series of changes occur based on these inputs throughout the day. At night the sun has a different look and feel. The light intensity and wavelengths change. The brain can sense this too and the changes that follow are in preparation for the night and sleep. Sun exposure is the key to resetting and maintaining the genes that are responsible for our biologic clock.

Now consider a normal day in modern life. If you are a busy professional you are up before the sun. You throw down 3 cups of strong coffee or an energy drink (or both) before you get to the office. The only light you’re exposed to comes from your phone, ceiling LED’s or a computer screen. You see the sun come up through a window with UV blocking glass. In the winter you leave for home at the end of the day after the sun goes down or maybe you catch some natural light on the way to your car. You sit in front of a screen with intense blue LED lights and under CFL or worse fluorescent lights all day. Now, is there any way that that doesn’t have an impact on the natural process of light inputs to our brains?

I challenge you to try getting natural light in your life for 1 week to see how you feel. Even if you have to wake up before the sun once it’s up GO OUTSIDE and embrace the morning sun for 20-30 minutes. Don’t slather on sunscreen in fear of skin cancer. The rays are not direct enough to cause harm but they will talk to your brain. Similarly, in the evening try to recalibrate your brain with a similar exposure as the sun is going down. After this exposure protect yourself from blue light with glasses that filter these wavelengths out. Then practice your already perfected sleep hygiene routine 🙂

Try this for 1 week to see what the impact on your mood, energy and desired activity will be. Everyone’s response to natural light is different with some people having better tolerance to artificial light than others but ultimately all of our genetics support natural light exposure in the morning and evening. If you have been out of sync for a long time it may take weeks or even months to correct the damage done but make this a priority and I am confident you will see benefits. In an effort to not be hypocritical this blog was written in the morning, in the sun. 🌞

Doug Lucas
Author: Doug Lucas

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