While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to transition to working from home, some are finding it difficult to sleep. According to one West Virginia University neuroscientist, this problem is caused by disruptions to the circadian rhythms that regulate our sleep-wake cycle.
Randy Nelson, director of the WVU Center for Foundational Neuroscience Research and Education, has studied how disruption to circadian rhythms affects metabolism, immunity, and neuroinflammation.
He says that despite the unnatural disruption caused by working from home there are ways to trick our bodies into getting more sleep.
“During the course of evolution, the temporal rhythm of our rotating planet was internalized in our bodies," Nelson explained.
"Virtually, all organisms on the planet have self-sustaining, internal biological clocks. In humans, almost every aspect of our physiology and behavior—ranging from sleep to hormone secretion to body temperature regulation, metabolism, and food intake—is mediated by our internal clocks.
These internal rhythms, which are synced to the solar days, are called ‘circadian rhythms,’ and the biological clocks that generate circadian rhythms are called ‘circadian clocks.’
"If individuals are left in constant conditions such as a dark cave," Nelson says, "then the internal circadian rhythms emerge—and they are not exactly 24 hours—but about a day‑—or circadian in Latin.
"For example, if you were placed in a dimly lit cave for several weeks, your sleep-wake cycle might be about 24 hours and 15 minutes, but not precisely 24 hours, as it would be above ground where the circadian clock is being reset daily by exposure to light.
Indeed, exposure to the bright sunlight during the day resets the circadian clocks to precisely 24 hours each day, Nelson says. However, exposure to artificial light at night can derail this system and cause havoc with the temporal coordination of physiology and behavior.
“If the body functions as an orchestra, then the circadian clock can be considered to function as the conductor—keeping physiology appropriately timed for optimal health. If the light-dark cycle is shifted by several hours, such as when one travels across time zones one experiences a malaise termed jet lag.
How to trick your body into getting the sleep it needs
In addition to jet travel and nightly exposure to artificial light, a common way that we impair the function of our internal clocks is something called 'social jet lag,' Nelson says.
"Social jet lag is the phase delay in your internal clock and sleep that occurs when you stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights to socialize and then sleep in on the following days to catch up," he says.
Social jet lag is what often makes Monday mornings so miserable and can disrupt circadian rhythms as much as actual jet lag.
Shifting from working at home to an office requires a shift in wake times because of the need for preparation and commuting. The key to good circadian hygiene is consistency in daily functioning.
“Make your bedroom completely dark—during the day if you are working night shifts—and make your workspace bright during the day—or if on night shift," Nelson says.
"In other words, mimic the natural day-night cycles in your home and office. If possible, get 30-plus minutes of exposure to sunlight in the morning: take a walk or run. Use bright illumination during the day to mimic daylight, and use black-out curtains or a sleep mask at night.
Ask your personal physician about whether she would recommend melatonin, he says. "Melatonin helps align circadian rhythms in most folks when taken two hours before sleep onset.”