Dr. Karthik Ramanan, NMD

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How to Reset Your Body Clock

Jun 12, 2020

50 to 70 million Americans experience a sleep disorder according to the American Sleep Association. If you feel like you’re not able to get enough sleep or quality sleep because your body clock is just off, you’re not alone.

I’m going to teach you about hormones that influence your sleep, why your body clock may be offset, and five major strategies to reset your body clock and get better sleep at night.

This article is going to be power packed with useful information, so silence your distractions, get a notebook, and get ready to take some notes.

Melatonin and Cortisol - Hormones that Influence Your Sleep

Your body clock, scientifically known as your circadian rhythm, influences your hormone levels, brain activity, cell regeneration, and more. To have a properly functioning circadian rhythm is critical for not only your emotional health, but your overall health.

Our master regulatory gland is the hypothalamus, located in the center of the brain. Its primary job is to keep the body in homeostasis, or balance, if you want to think of it that way. Many of the body’s thermostat-like controls are regulated through the hypothalamus.

One such mechanism is circadian rhythm regulation, orchestrated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus. It receives light information from the eye and sends the information elsewhere, like to the pineal gland. This information is used to regulate the secretion of melatonin by the pineal gland. Melatonin, which you can think of as your “stay asleep” hormone, is secreted by the pineal gland in the darkness. The presence of light turns melatonin production off. As you can see already, light exposure plays an important role in maintaining your sleep patterns.

Another hormone that you need to understand is cortisol. Cortisol is your primary stress hormone, and it is released by your adrenal glands. It gives you alertness. It too has a regulatory mechanism, and the hypothalamus is involved again. It’s called the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal axis, or HPA axis. I’ll save the details for a future video, but when your HPA axis is off, your cortisol levels are affected, and you might experience what’s casually called “adrenal fatigue”. Ever heard of that? Experienced that? I have. And it goes hand in hand with burnout. It’s not fun.

Let’s look at these two hormones again. Melatonin is your stay asleep hormone. Naturally, you’d want this to be high during the night and low during the day. Cortisol is your alertness hormone. You’d want this to be high in the morning and reduce throughout the day. When these two hormones don’t act the way they’re intended to, your body clock will be affected negatively.

Now that we’ve talked about some concepts in human physiology relating to your body clock, let’s quickly look into why your body clock might be offset.

Why Your Body Clock May Be Offset

For one, your light exposure might not resemble natural environmental circumstances. For instance, if you don’t get enough sunlight exposure during the day, and you have too much exposure to blue light from your devices at night, you can see how this might confuse our bodies as to whether we’re in daytime or nighttime.

Additionally, traveling across time zones can impact our body clock. Working late or overnight shifts. Eating at the wrong times. Being stressed out or burnt out. The list goes on.

What can we do about it? Quite a bit. Let’s go.

Five Strategies to Reset your Body Clock and Get Better Sleep at Night

Strategy One: Fix Your Light Exposure.

Get plenty of sunlight during the day. Not only is sunlight necessary for vitamin D production, sunlight triggers a protein called melanopsin. Melanopsin causes us to become more alert and energized, and it’s responsible for synchronizing the brain clock. Melanopsin is only triggered by blue light, not orange light. If we’re indoors most of the day, we’re not getting enough sunlight for our melanopsin to properly set the brain clock. And as we’re on our blue light emitting devices at night, we’re getting just enough blue light to screw up our brain clock when its expecting no sunlight and no blue light. No wonder our body clocks are off!

That leads me to the second point on fixing your light exposure: reduce usage of your devices in the evening. This includes your phones, laptops, and TVs. If you must use them, turn on the color temperature shifting features like Night Shift on your iPhone, or use blue light blocking glasses.

Having proper light exposure also matters when we’re sleeping. Block out all extra light from your bedroom so that your sleep is sound. Remember, melatonin, your stay asleep hormone, is up-regulated in darkness. If your bedroom has too much outside light, even if your eyes are covered, your body clock will get disturbed. Use blackout curtains. Absolutely avoid bringing your phone into your bedroom at night, and instead use a dim alarm clock. Even better, use a wake-up light alarm clock that simulates the sunrise at the desired time.

Strategy Two: Fix Your Food Habits.

Our chronobiology is also affected by our dietary patterns. We’ve been told we need to eat three meals a day, and snack in between. This isn’t natural. Food was a scarce commodity for much of human existence. When we are in a constant fed state, we fail to establish daily rhythms for our metabolism and our gut microbiome.

Intermittent fasting is an excellent way to spend more time outside the fed state. Additionally, chronobiology research shows us that eating more of our food toward the beginning of the day and less food later in the day has beneficial effects for our body clock and even for weight loss. Try eating within a 12 hour window, with the majority of the food toward the beginning of the day, and gradually reduce that window within which you eat. Definitely do not eat within 3 hours of going to sleep. The closer we can be to a fasted state going into the night, the better we’ll sleep.

Additionally, reduce your reliance on stimulants like coffee. I can already hear you complaining. Your body can and will adjust to less caffeine if you train it to do so. If you do consume stimulants, make sure you do so as far away from bed time as possible. For many people, a single cup of coffee at noon can disturb their sleep at night. Figure out a solution that works best for you. For me, I don’t consume any caffeine. You’ll adjust.

Strategy Three: Create Powerful, Repeatable Night Time Habits

We truly are creatures of habit. We’re talking about body clocks here. What does that mean? Patterns, routines, habits. If our night time routines are...no routine… then how can we expect our body to simply behave as if there was a routine?

Find a way to wind down at the end of the night. That means, create habits around time, place, actions leading up to bed time. Time. Strive to get into bed at the same time each night. Place. Make sure your bedroom is only used for sleep and sex. Not for TV. Not for work. We want to create the psychological connection that this bed and this room equals sleep. And lastly actions. Create a ritual for yourself at night that will, with practice, trigger the unconscious habits that lead to sleep. This could include reading fiction from a book, not a blue light emitting iPad. It could include meditating. Light yoga. Anything that relaxes you.

You could also create a routine that includes a contrast shower before bed. DISCLAIMER: if you're dealing with a diagnosed medical condition, consult your physician first. Be smart. This is for educational purposes only.

Ok here's how it works. Start with nice and warm or hot like you'd normally do it. Then quickly switch to cold water for 10, 15, 30 seconds, whatever you can tolerate. Then go back to hot for another minute. Then back to cold. You can repeat it a few times. The key is ending on cold, again for as long as you can comfortably tolerate. Dry yourself off, but don't do so vigorously enough to warm yourself up with the towel. You've cooled down your body, and you want your hypothalamus to kick in to raise your body temperature on its own. Go right to bed.

Bonus tip for the contrast showers. If you're already in bed and having a hard time falling back asleep, laying in bed and being frustrated is only going to keep you up longer. When I'm up in the middle of the night, a quick 3-5 minute contrast shower is my go-to remedy. I get back to bed and sleep like a baby.

Strategy Four: Fix your Psychology Around Sleep

Listen, high-achiever. If you think sleep is for the weak, or I can sleep when I’m dead… think again. If you want great emotional health, if you want great brain health, sleep is non-negotiable. If you constantly feel that sleeping is in opposition to your productivity, you’re unconsciously going to be fighting your body clock. Work with your body’s rhythms, and you’ll do even more extraordinary work.

Strategy Five: See a Licensed Naturopathic Physician

Look, I get it, you don’t have time to go see a doctor, and you’d rather just buy a supplement from Costco. If we don’t run your labs and understand what’s going on in your body, you might just be patching up one area while the root cause goes unaddressed. Here’s an example. Remember melatonin, our stay asleep hormone? If we can’t sleep at night, it would make sense we could take a melatonin supplement. Well it turns out that melatonin can be used as an antioxidant in the body to neutralize reactive oxygen species. Free radicals resulting from normal body functions that can damage our cells. Maybe your diet doesn’t consist of enough antioxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables, and as a result your melatonin is being rapidly consumed for antioxidant functions rather than for balancing your body clock. You wouldn’t know what’s going on in your unique body unless you worked with a professional. 

What was your favorite tip to reset your body clock? Let me know in the comments below.

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