articles: rhythms & routines

Whether you’re unemployed, recovering from an injury, adjusting to life in a college dorm, or are stuck in self-quarantine, it’s easy for all sense of normalcy to go out the window. However, it’s vital to your health and wellness that you not fight against the very bodily systems you need to survive.

We’ve all heard references to our “biological clock.” Though it seems like an outdated proverb or old idiom, believe it or not, organisms have an innate timing within nearly every tissue and organ generated by certain proteins. The communication/ collaboration between cells generates circadian rhythms. Scientists have identified similar genes in a variety of organisms from humans to fruit flies, from mice to fungi. In such vertebrates, a bundle of about 20,000 neurons form a structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. The SCN is located in the brain and receives direct input from the eyes.

A combination of natural elements and environmental stimuli effect hormone release, digestion and body temperature by acting as cues that signal the brain to regulate these bodily functions. The most common and/or influential factor is light. Daylight turns on and off genes that control the molecular structure of the SCN. Altering cycles of light and darkness will alter the speed of your body’s internal sense of timing and thus its circadian rhythms. Via hormones, circadian rhythms control our sleep patterns. From our eyes to our brains, optic nerves alert the hypothalamus to incoming light; the SCN then regulates the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you drowsy.

In other posts (e.g. the light in your eyes), I address specific colors along the visible spectrum and their effects on our eyes and subsequently our brains and bodies (glossary of sections of the brain and pattern recognition). I also explain the difference between kinds of light bulbs and a variety of beneficial health treatments that utilize light (blue light, red light). But for now, let’s consider a few phenomena:

  1. Modern technology (especially the discovery of electricity and invention light bulbs) provide virtually nonstop stimulation, particularly in the form of light.
  2. Globalization makes it possible to travel anywhere faster than ever has before, which means crossing time zones and therefore the potential to arrive at a destination at the same calendar date and/or clock time as which you departed.
  3. Former prisoners of war have reported torture techniques involving disruption of circadian rhythms via an erratic sleeping and eating schedule.
  4. Hormone disruption, anxiety and depression, not to mention sleeping and eating disorders, are rampant in modern Society.

How many seeming coincidences are reasonable to accept before examining whether we’re responsible for unnecessary health problems? Recall my past post, pattern recognition in the brain: since we know the brain can be trained to regulate, or at least associate, specific functions with certain stimuli, it’s to our advantage to maintain a HEALTHY routine that will turn a tendency into a habit. Consider the following tips to help set (or reset) your body’s master clock:

  • Keep a consistent bedtime. Moreover, avoid napping in chairs, falling asleep in front of the TV, etc. If you notice that your body needs a daily nap (assuming you’re already getting adequate nightly sleep), designate a time to turn off the TV/ radio and lay down, preferably in bed. Likewise, avoid lingering in bed (such as to watch TV, eat a snack, or return emails) unless you plan to read something inspirational or listen to restful music before you go to sleep. This distinction will train your brain to differentiate between waking and sleeping and to associate specific times and locations with both.
  • Limit exposure to electronic screens (TV, tablet, cell phone) to allow your body time to prepare for sleep. Furthermore, sleep in darkness with minimal sources of light. A sleep mask is helpful for blocking the input of light through your eyelids, especially if you’re unable to modify your surrounding environment (e.g. a hotel stay or camping trip) or wish to keep on a nightlight in case of emergency.
  • A change of clothes can be a helpful signal when transitioning between waking and sleeping, i.e. don’t sleep in the same pajama/ yoga pants you wore during waking hours and vice versa.
  • Most types of exercise/ activity will stimulate blood flow, elevate heart rate and can even increase endorphins and adrenaline. Calming activities are best prior to sleeping.
  • Essential oils (see my previous post) can be either alerting or calming as they stimulate chemicals and hormones. Moreover, they can aid the regulation of  various functions, such as digestion and blood pressure to ensure these don’t interfere with sleep.
  • Make conscious/ deliberate choices about sugar, alcohol and caffeine intake– know your body (and metabolism) and how it responds to each. In moderation, these can help to either rouse or relax you.

Plan a fixed schedule for eating, working, exercising and resting. Setting a timer, such as on your smartphone can allow you to fully immerse yourself in each activity without having to incessantly watch the clock. Over time, you’re brain and body will get in sync; you’ll automatically receive signals when it’s time for each activity. Obviously, there will be instance when sticking to your routine is impossible. But the longer you’ve kept a a consistent pattern, the easier it will be return to your routine, both because it’s a psychological habit and a biological rhythm.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

The National Sleep Foundation: what is Circadian Rhythm?

Northwestern Medicine: health benefits of having a routine

US Dept. of Health and Human Services: Let’s talk about routines (video)

American Addiction Centers: why you need routine & structure

University of Maine (Advising & Academic Services): the importance of routine

Super Nanny: top tips on establishing a daily family routine

Parents Magazine: routines matter– 4 ways to set a smart toddler schedule

DailyCaring: why a daily routine is important for seniors

Nebraska Autism Spectrum Disorders Network: Rules & Routines

ADDitude: daily schedules for kids with ADD

 

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