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Wired but Tired? Reset Your Circadian Rhythm for Better Sleep

A fast-paced life with many demands can wreak havoc on your sleep schedule. Find out how to get back in the groove with your circadian rhythm.

Man waking up by stretching his body facing the window, a clock shows it’s 7am

In healthy and balanced individuals, their circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle matches their external environment. When your circadian cycle is out of sync, you’ll start feeling out of sorts. You may get stuck in a cycle of waking up tired and going to bed wired.

Learn how to press the reset button on your sleep schedule, and how to do it safely. 

What Is the Circadian Rhythm?  

The term “circadian” originates from the Latin words “circa” and “diem”, which mean “around or approximately” and “a day”, respectively. It refers to the internal body clock that helps you wake up and stay up, then winds down and rest for the day.

When you have a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, you may notice that your energy levels don’t match the task or activity you’re doing. You’ll find it hard to fall asleep once you’re in bed. Even if you do eventually fall asleep, you may wake up many times in the middle of the night. Another sign that your circadian cycle is out of whack is waking up too early and being unable to fall back to sleep. 

Getting Back in the Groove: How to Reset Your Circadian Rhythm

Tired woman rests her head on the steering wheel of her car.
Fatigue is a common symptom of not having a healthy sleep cycle

In a pinch, you may resort to sleeping pills to fall asleep. Not feeling well-rested, you may also reach for that third cup of coffee in the morning to stay awake.

However, these quick fixes aren’t recommended for the long term and may not even work well in the short term. Here are 7 steps you can take to reset your circadian rhythm the safe way. 

1. Get serious about having a regular sleep schedule  

One of the first things to focus on is going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, ideally at a time that matches your natural circadian rhythm. Make the change gradually. If you’ve been sleeping late at 1am, start by going to bed at 12:30am. Move it back another 30 minutes the following week until you’ve reached your ideal bedtime

In TCM, the sleep-and-awake cycle is regulated by the continuous circulation of wei qi (卫气 , protective qi). While wei qi circulates the body, it goes through the meridians (the channels where our qi, blood and body fluids move). Wei qi does this 25 times along yang meridians during daytime and then 25 more times throughout yin meridians at night-time.

Using the meridian clock as a basis, we can determine the best time to sleep according to TCM, which is by 11pm. Staying up past 11pm prevents the regeneration of Liver yin and blood.

2. Try not to give in to nap cravings 

While you’re trying to re-establish a regular sleep schedule, you may feel like napping all the time during the day. Try not to give in to this, as it can interfere with your sleep later at night. However, a quick 15-minute power nap is okay if it means helping you get some needed rest. 

3. Limit the consumption of stimulants and depressants  

Limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and certain medicines, especially when close to bedtime. As these different substances enter your system, they can interfere with your body’s natural wind-down phase at night, hours before you should be going to sleep. 

Sour jujube seed (suan zao ren, 酸枣仁) is a common TCM herb that physicians use in insomnia treatments that nourish the Liver and Heart, calms the mind and helps with the management of physical symptoms brought about by stress. Atractylodes rhizome (bai zhu, 白术) and red dates are beneficial for nourishing the Spleen, Heart and blood, as well as calming the mind. Other herbs that can treat insomnia include spine date vinegar, blueberry, cranberry, Aronia, blackcurrant, West Indian cherry and walnut membrane. 

A 2015 meta-analysis of 13 studies across 1,454 patients published in the Journal of Natural Medicines showed that sour jujube seeds were better at treating insomnia than the placebo. The analysis also showed that this herb is an effective adjunct to Western medicine. 

4. Get the right amount of light at the right times  

Being outside when it’s daytime helps your body reconnect with visual light cues. TCM believes that some sun exposure can boost yang qi (阳气). The sun nourishes Kidney yang, which gives your body warmth and helps keep the organs and tissues functioning properly. When you don’t get enough sun, you might feel cold and appear pale because you lack yang qi to warm your inner core.

When it’s nighttime, limit screen time from your devices. Artificial light can interfere with melatonin release in your system, which is a hormone that signals your body to fall asleep. 

5. Maintain a regular eating schedule 

Have consistent mealtimes so that your body learns to prepare for digestion at the same time every day. It’ll know when to fire up to help with digestion, and when to slow down and rest at night.

Eu Yan Sang Physician Sam Ng Teck Xian explains that the main function of the Spleen is to absorb nutrients from food eaten. Nutrients are converted into blood, qi (vital life force), and body fluids, which are transported throughout the body. If the Spleen and stomach are weak, malnutrition will occur. Having irregular mealtimes can also weaken the Spleen.

6. Exercise at the right time 

Be careful not to exercise too close to bedtime, as this may raise your energy levels and interfere with your ability to fall and stay asleep. Consider relaxing stretches before bedtime instead. 

In TCM, the best times to exercise are between 7am and 9am when wei qi (卫气 , protective qi) flows through the stomach and movement can jumpstart your metabolism for healthy weight balance. Other good times are 9am and 11am when enzymes from the Spleen continue their assimilation process and 3pm to 5pm when wei qi reaches the bladder and energy is restored.

7. Consider melatonin supplements, with some caveats 

We naturally produce melatonin but some of us may occasionally need external melatonin to help us fall asleep. Melatonin is generally safe, though it’s known to have some side effects such as daytime drowsiness, nausea, headaches, and dizziness.

Get Back and Stay in Rhythm with TCM

Dried codonopsis root (codonopsis pilosula) on a plate placed on a wooden tray
Codonopsis root is a TCM herb used in formulations to help with circadian cycle disruptions.

The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concept of the body clock is similar to the concept of the circadian rhythm. “The TCM body clock is where qi (energy) in the body moves in two-hour intervals throughout the organ systems. The idea is to align the day’s activities to the respective organs at their peak functionalities to maximise health benefits,” TCM physician Anita Pee explains. 

Acupuncture and acupressure 

“Acupuncture helps relax the body, calm the mind, and promote smooth qi and blood circulation. Most people tend to sleep better after acupuncture treatments and can wake up feeling refreshed to start the day,” Physician Pee shares. In a 2013 study, acupuncture was shown to be better than sham acupuncture and Western medicine in treating 180 insomnia patients over six weeks. 

Sham acupuncture, also called placebo acupuncture, is performed away from the acupuncture points established by TCM or without stimulation and manipulation. This is used as a control in scientific studies to determine the efficacy of acupuncture and to avoid eliciting numbness or soreness.

Physician Pee also shares some acupressure points to help you get restful sleep: yin tang (GV29, 印堂), nei guan (PC6, 内关), tai chong (LR3, 太冲), shen men (HT7, 神门) and an mian (EXHN, 安眠). Massage each of these points for three to five minutes before sleep.   

Being out of sync with your circadian rhythm happens to the best of us. Thankfully there is a reset button, though it’s not a quick switch. Try integrating the above steps and tips to get back into the groove and start feeling balanced again.

References

  1. Cleveland Clinic. 2020. Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders. [online] [Accessed on 20 September 2022]
  2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, USA. 2022. Circadian Rhythm Disorders – Treatment. [online] [Accessed on 20 September 2022]
  3. Sleep Science. 2017. Sleep, Melatonin, and the Menopausal Transition: What Are the Links? [online] [Accessed on 20 September 2022]
  4. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences. 2016. Human biological rhythm in traditional Chinese medicine. [online] [Accessed on 20 September 2022]
  5. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Do You Need to Reset Your Circadian Rhythm? [online] [Accessed on 20 September 2022]
  6. Journal of Natural Medicines. 2015. The genus Codonopsis (Campanulaceae): a review of phytochemistry, bioactivity and quality control. [Accessed on 20 September 2022]
  7. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2018. Suanzaoren Formulae for Insomnia: Updated Clinical Evidence and Possible Mechanisms. [online] [Accessed on 20 September 2022]
  8. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2013. Efficacy of Acupuncture for Primary Insomnia: A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. [online] [Accessed on 20 September 2022]

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