Have you ever flown from time zone to time zone? Most of us have. Unfortunately, it can be rather hard to sleep after landing in a different time zone, particularly if you departed from several time zones away. Your biological clock becomes confused. You’re living in a different hour than the rest of your environment. This phenomenon is called jet lag, and is fairly commonplace. However, unbeknownst to most, jet lag actually is a disorder, known as a circadian rhythm disorder.
What is Your Circadian Rhythm
Circadian rhythm disorders are disorders in which the pattern of which you sleep is compromised. A circadian rhythm is essentially your biological clock, and when that clock gets thrown off, it can affect your body temperature, alertness, appetite and hormone secretion, among other things. Circadian rhythm disorders are often misdiagnosed, which can have serious psychological consequences.
The circadian rhythm is not precisely your biological clock however. They are close in nature, but our biological clock actually controls our circadian rhythm. More exactly, a circadian rhythm is a display of physical, mental and behavioral changes over a cycle of 24 hours. It responds to light and darkness in the surrounding environment.
What We Know
Though the circadian rhythm plays an important role in the health of a human being (and indeed other animal life and plant life), it is often overlooked in fields of study. Yet there has been some research into the functionality of circadian rhythms. The most important thing about an individual’s circadian rhythm is that it is directly related to how that individual sleeps. It helps to produce melatonin, a chemical that makes you sleepy. When the body detects that there is less light coming in, the brain sends a signal to produce more melatonin, thereby making you drowsy. That’s why it’s harder for people to sleep during the day. As a result, people who work graveyard shifts tend to suffer from a circadian rhythm disorder as well, called shift work sleep disorder.
Jet lag and shift work sleep disorder are examples of extrinsic circadian rhythm disorders. They are extrinsic because they stem from an individual’s behavior (i.e. working at night, traveling long distances), not necessarily because of faulty genetics. There are intrinsic circadian rhythm disorders that are genetically based. People with these disorders tend to suffer due to irregular sleep patterns. For some people this means they have trouble falling asleep at night and sleeping in in the morning, for others it means sleeping twice a days at various times. It depends on the disorder.
There are treatments for these disorders however. The most prominent treatments are behavioral treatments, including chronotherapy, which involves the participant gradually shifting his or her sleep schedule until a desired one is found. Another behavioral treatment is bright light therapy, in which the participant is exposed to intense levels of light under controlled conditions. Melatonin injections are also available.
Think of the drum rhythm in your favorite song. Only the most skilled drummers are able to continually stray from consistent patterns. But most drummers, especially in pop music, pick a beat and stick with it. When the drummer falls off rhythm, it has a detrimental effect on the timing of the song. That’s your circadian rhythm. Keep a good beat and make sure it stays healthy.
Author Bio: Michelle Gordon is a sleep expert who researches and writes about sleep and health, and is an online publisher for the latex mattress specialist Latexmattress.org.