Ignore your body clock at your peril: the pitfalls of circadian misalignment

circadian misalignment

When we think about getting a good night’s sleep, we often think about how much, and maybe a second consideration about quality. However, there is also a third very important component that is often neglected or forgotten – when to sleep.

The timing of the sleep/wake phase in every 24hour period and our understanding of it is developing all the time.


What is circadian misalignment?

Circadian misalignment is essentially when we ignore our body’s sleep requirements. Typically the circadian rhythm tells the brain when we should sleep and when we should wake (in very broad terms) and to ensure we are fully refreshed and benefitting from adequate rest one must try to listen to these requirements.

Anyone who has travelled across several time zones and experienced jetlag knows what circadian misalignment feels like. It can take several days for the body clock to readjust to a new time zone.

Fatigue and insomnia are not uncommon when trying to settle into a new sleep schedule. Similarly, the disruption can impact on the way an individual eats, drinks, digests and visits the bathroom. Concentration problems and feelings of anxiety or irritability are also commonplace.


Social jetlag

Ever caught yourself saying, “I’ll catch up on sleep at the weekend” to justify burning the candle at both ends with your work and social commitments? This routine has been coined as “social jetlag” by a chronobiologist from the University of Munich called Dr Till Roenneberg. This term describes the mismatch between our internal biological rhythms and our actual daily sleep schedule. Scientifically speaking, trying to catch up on sleep at the weekend just doesn’t work. It is much more effective to find a consistent rhythm rather than take a feast or famine approach to sleep.

The simplest way to combat social jetlag is to try to stay in tune with what your body is telling you rather than letting your lifestyle dictate when and how you sleep.


The problem with night shifts

An estimated 1 in 8 people work night shifts in the UK. But there is a growing body of evidence that hints at significant long and short-term health issues caused by regular circadian misalignment. These include links to weight problems, poor mood, stress, depression and even compromised immune function.


I’m a shift worker. What should I do?

Everyone from firefighters to nurses, office-cleaning staff to police officers can be at risk of shift work sleep disorders. If you work unusual shift patterns or regularly work overnight, it becomes more important than ever to pay attention to what your body tells you. When you feel fatigued and crave sleep, opt to go to bed instead of watching that box set or getting distracted by your phone.

If you work through the night and have to catch up on your sleep during the day, ensure that your bedroom is fitted with good quality black-out blinds and try to remove all screens and mobile devices from the bedroom. And, of course, optimise the sleep environment with a good quality mattress, comfortable sheets and the right room temperature.

sleep for shift workers

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