Have you noticed that you tend to be more alert or drowsy during certain times of day? There’s a scientific reason for that: the body’s natural biological cycles, known as circadian rhythms. The word “circadian” combines the Latin words for “about” and “day.” According to The National Institute of General Medical Sciences, many living things follow circadian rhythms, including plants, insects, animals, people, and fungi.
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter studying, working, or celebrating, then you also know the ill effects of not getting enough sleep. This is in part because our bodies are designed to be awake and asleep for a certain amount of time each day, and the need for sleep is driven by our internal biological clock.
If you’re wondering how to sleep better, start by understanding your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. This knowledge can help you set up habits and routines that work with your biological needs rather than against them.
Learn How to Sleep Better by Understanding Your Sleep-Wake Cycle
The sleep-wake cycle is a type of circadian rhythm, or biological process that follows a 24-hour cycle. The sleep-wake cycle is driven by a complex set of physical and hormonal processes. For example, certain brain chemicals influence whether we feel awake or sleepy, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. The brain releases these chemicals based on certain cues, including exposure to sunlight. The hypothalamus is the area of the brain that releases these hormones to create feelings of either alertness or sleepiness. Exposure to sunlight drives the release of alertness hormones, which helps us wake up for the day. As these hormones diminish throughout the day, the brain releases hormones that make us feel sleepy, including melatonin.
What Happens When the Sleep-Wake Cycle is Disrupted
When the sleep-wake cycle is disrupted, sleep problems can arise, ranging from temporary setbacks to medical sleep disorders. The two most familiar sleep-wake cycle disruptions are jet lag and overnight shift work.
According to the Mayo Clinic, jet lag is caused by crossing multiple time zones in a short period of time. Meanwhile, your body’s internal clock is still set to your at-home sleep cycle, resulting in fatigue while the body adjusts to its new time zone.
Working overnights is another way to disrupt the natural sleep-wake cycle, which is in part driven by exposure to sunlight. As a UCLA post about shift work notes, chronic sleep disruption due to an overnight work schedule can take a toll on our health.
Other sleep-wake cycle sleep disorders exist that can originate from several causes, including poor sleep hygiene, drug use, dementia, or blindness.
Habits That Support a Healthy Sleep-Wake Cycle
Whether you sleep like a proverbial log or like an actual baby (infants naturally wake up multiple times per night), you can adopt certain habits that support good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is a series of healthy habits that promote sleep and align with our natural sleep-wake cycle. These habits include going to bed and waking up at the same time each day and minimizing the amount of light in the bedroom while sleeping.
There are some types of sleep disorders that good sleep habits alone can’t address and that may require medical intervention. Regardless of how well you sleep, following good pro-sleep habits can support your overall well-being.
If you’re not sure whether you’re getting enough sleep or your sleep patterns are normal, consult your healthcare practitioner.
Check out our guides to supporting a healthy sleep-wake cycle: