If you’ve ever been curious enough to google why you experience jet lag after a long trip, you probably came across the term “circadian rhythm,” which refers to your body’s internal clock. And though your body clock likes to let you know that it’s out of whack after you travel across time zones, it affects your daily life in all sorts of other ways.
A whole slew of lifestyle factors can throw off your inner clock, often leaving you feeling, well, pretty terrible. With a little effort, however, you can reset your circadian rhythm to feel more balanced. Consider this your guide.
The Circadian Rhythm Basics
The circadian rhythm is essentially a biological clock that regulates physical, mental, and behavioral patterns that follow a 24-hour cycle in response to light or darkness, explains naturopath Dr. Olivia Rose, N.D. It has a hand in everything from the processes of falling asleep and waking up, to digesting food, resting and recovering from activity, and utilizing energy. That means your blood sugar, insulin regulation, immune function, and cellular repair are all in some way influenced by this internal rhythm.
Two key hormones are involved in the process: cortisol, which is released in the morning, and melatonin, which is released at night.
With the help of these hormones, your circadian rhythm basically tells your body what it needs to do and when. Just one of many examples: If you go to bed every night at 10 o’clock, your circadian rhythm starts to ensure that you get tired around that time, explains naturopath Dr. Arlene Dubier, N.D. “Your body lowers its temperature and goes into its resting phase, so you can fully recover from a long day,” she says.
In addition to light and darkness, though, your circadian rhythm also reacts to other external stimuli, like stress, activity, mental and social triggers, the temperature, and the seasons, adds naturopath Dr. Kate Firisin, N.D.
It’s no wonder that when your internal clock is out of sync, everything from weight gain and irritability to cholesterol and blood sugar dysregulation, hormone imbalances, and mood issues start to pop up, Rose says.
Humans aren’t the only organisms with an internal clock, either. “Have you ever noticed that flowers close up when it gets dark?” Firisin points out.
How To support your circadian rhythm naturally
Since the circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that responds to the sun, supporting it starts with maintaining proper sleep habits, Rose says. When your sleep is in good rhythm, other processes that rely on a circadian rhythm fall into place more quickly, she explains.
Where to start, though? These expert tips will put you on the right track to feeling totally in sync with your inner clock.
1. Stand (or Sit) In The Sunshine
Sunlight exposure is the number-one environmental regulator of circadian rhythm, according to Dubier. Light promotes the release of cortisol, which helps us stay alert and feel well during the day, says double-board certified Doctor of Natural and Integrative Medicine Dr. Rachel Eva Dew D.N.M., D.I.M., Ph.D. says. That means that exposing yourself to daylight at the proper times is key.
Ideally, you’d get some natural light within an hour or two of waking up, Firisin notes. (Research suggests that the first hour is most optimal.) An excuse to start your morning slowly by sitting outside and drinking a cup of tea, perhaps?
From there, spend as much time as you can outside throughout the day. “It’s even best to avoid using sunglasses and sunscreen for at least the first 15 minutes,” says Dew. Of course, you want to protect yourself from ultraviolet radiation, but you also want to reap sunlight’s natural benefits.
2. Try light therapy
If you can’t get outside at the ideal times (or find yourself in a gray, overcast climate), a lightbox can mimic sunlight and help stimulate the production of daytime chemicals like cortisol, Firisin says. Using a lightbox at the times of day you’d ideally get outside can help regulate your circadian rhythm.
This therapy is especially beneficial if you’re a shift worker or have insomnia, depression, or jet lag, since each of these circumstances can impact your circadian rhythm, she adds.
3. Follow a consistent sleep-wake Schedule
Going to bed and waking at the same time every (yes, every) day can also help you maintain a proper rhythm. “If you feel tired or rundown, you will benefit more from several nights of a consistent sleep schedule than from sleeping until noon on a Saturday in attempts to ‘catch up’ on sleep,” Firisin explains. Pick sleep and wake times that you can realistically stick to on both weekdays and weekends—and commit to following that routine. Of course, make sure to give yourself seven to nine hours for snoozing, Rose notes.
4. Get serious about managing stress
Cortisol and melatonin are vital in maintaining your circadian rhythm—but can wreak havoc on it if they’re churned out at the wrong times or not produced in ample amounts when needed most. “Cortisol, our stress hormone, should be highest in the morning,” says Firisin. As the day progresses, though, it should taper off and give way to melatonin, which will help us start to slow down a bit around four or five in the afternoon.
Since stress triggers cortisol production, if your stress levels don’t go down as the day wears on, your cortisol won’t drop, which then hinders melatonin production, she explains. Because cortisol can feel a bit like adrenaline in the body, it can contribute to sleepless nights when our eyes are wide open and we just can’t shut off our minds.
Of course, the self-care practices that can help reduce stress levels work differently for different people, so finding something that works for you is key, Dubier says. Exercising regularly, meditating, journaling, and having standing dates with friends can all help you reduce stress levels and get your inner body clock back on track.
5. Limit alcohol intake
If you’re really looking to improve your circadian rhythm, you may want to reduce how much alcohol you consume—and when you do it.
“Alcohol disturbs your sleep rhythm and keeps you from REM sleep cycles during the night,” Firisin warns. While you may think you’re “passed out,” your brain and body are not truly resting. Generally, “allowing your brain and mind to be calm and centered before sleep is a simple way to optimize sleep cycles,” Dew recommends.
To support circadian rhythm stability, Dubier suggests that women consume fewer than four drinks per week, while men stick to less than seven. (For reference, one drink is considered a six-oz glass of wine or beer or a shot of liquor.) Women should have no more than one drink per night, while men should limit themselves to two, Rose adds.
6. Consider supplementing with melatonin
“When taken as a supplement at night, melatonin can help regulate your circadian rhythm,” Rose says. “The body naturally makes melatonin in response to darkness, but if you are a shift worker or are experiencing jet lag, you may need the support of a supplement to help reset your circadian rhythm.”
That said, almost anyone having trouble with sleep can benefit from melatonin supplementation—if used appropriately. Dubier, for example, typically only has patients take melatonin for three months, during which time she also incorporates strategies for supporting their own natural melatonin production. From there, she reassesses the need for continuing with supplemental melatonin.
And though the right amount of melatonin varies from person to person, Dubier generally starts with a low dose of 1.5 to three milligrams and adjusts as needed from there. Certain individuals may need up to 10 milligrams, but it’s important to work up to this dose to avoid daytime grogginess, she adds.
7. Eat dinner earlier
As tempting as it may be to curl up with Netflix and a slice or two late at night, it’s an indulgence your circadian rhythm will pay for later. “The timing of food is incredibly important because certain enzymes and hormones for metabolism are released at particular times of day,” Dubier explains. “Insulin sensitivity and secretion is highest during the morning and midday, which is regulated, of course, by your circadian rhythm.”
Not to mention, “If you eat too late at night, you may have trouble falling asleep as your body is trying to digest your food, which throws off your internal clock,” Rose warns.
To keep your body clock in balance, try to have dinner in the early evening, preferably when the sun is up, or at least before six o’clock, recommends Dubier.
8. Exercise during the day
According to Dubier, working out during the day can help the chronically stressed wind down better at night. If you’re going to do a more intense workout (like HIIT), pencil it in during the morning or early afternoon. Since tough workouts trigger cortisol release, doing them in the late afternoon or evening could impact your circadian rhythm by hyping up your body when it should really be winding down, she explains.
Plus, since cortisol naturally peaks early in the day, your body (think muscular function, reaction time, and cardio performance) is better positioned to tackle intense training then, she adds.
If you plan on exercising in the evening and have your circadian rhythm top-of-mind, stick to a more relaxing movement, such as walking or yoga (or at least shorter HIIT sessions) to ensure you can sleep after you sweat.
9. Limit blue light exposure before bedtime
“Blue light waves from your phone, computer, TV, and tablet screens can affect your circadian rhythm,” Firisin explains. Even having several electronics plugged in near your bed can have an impact, which is why she recommends keeping your phone at least three feet away from you when you’re in bed.
“Dim the lights and turn off the screens at least one hour before bed,” Dubier adds. If you must use your tech, use a red, orange, pink, or yellow color filter. (These colors all fall opposite blue on the light spectrum.)
For bonus points, you can gently light your room with a Himalayan salt lamp, which emits a reddish light that allows for regular melatonin production, notes Firisin.