Keeping your sleep in rhythm with a 24-hour clock
Whether you rise with the sun or are only getting up when the sun sets, life often has people struggling to sleep just when they feel they need it.
And living in Egypt just lends itself to a mid-afternoon snooze in (or to get out of) the heat, and a late-night shisha in the open air. But is this lifestyle natural? Or is it symptomatic of a circadian rhythm sleeping disorder?
The answer to both of these questions is yes – and no.
Something that Egyptians and others who live here are plagued with is an irregular sleeping pattern, making it difficult to live ones life around a typical – or atypical in some cases – nine-to-five work day.
Your body has a natural, daily, biological clock; known as a circadian rhythm (circadian comes from the Latin to mean ‘about a day’). Though it is influenced by the length of time you have been awake since last sleeping, it essentially governs your need, desire, and ability to fall asleep.
This body clock is regulated by a specific part in the hypothalamus region of the brain.
The hypothalamus controls the release of all the hormones in the body and needs to receive signals telling it when the time has come to shut down and prepare for sleep.
These signals – sunshine, darkness, certain sounds, the weather, and even when you eat – tell the body when to produce certain hormones that either prepare you for sleep or tell you to get up.
The disruption of these signals is at the root of any circadian rhythm sleeping disorder. Some even claim that if this disruption occurs excessively as a child, then the likelihood of a disorder in later life is all the greater.
But you can still be a night owl – or an early bird – and have a healthy circadian clock. That is to say you can still sleep and wake at the same time every day. Starting a new routine that has you getting up earlier (or later) will also see you being able to go to sleep earlier (or later).
The term ‘disorder’ implies that this cycle has been disrupted somehow to the point that you can’t get done what you need to do every day.
There are several kinds of circadian rhythm sleep disorders including jet lag and shift-work sleeping disorders. The former is caused by the disruption of the light and dark cycle that crossing time zones results in.
It is best prevented by sleeping well on the plane, staying hydrated (avoiding tea, coffee, alcohol and salt while flying), and going out into the sunshine if you land during the daylight hours.
Shift-work sleep ailments occurs when people’s work timetables are at odds with powerful sleep-regulating triggers like sunlight; its sufferers, much like someone who travels extensively, have an increased risk of heart problems, irritable bowel syndrome, and emotional and mental problems.
By far the most common two circadian rhythm disorders, however, are the delayed and advanced varieties.
As a young human being, the body clock tends to run a bit slower, resulting in late-night insomnia: difficulty falling asleep at night. This is delayed circadian rhythm disorder, and results in the body clock not waking up the body until later in the morning or day, meaning a bleary-eyed morning, lethargic afternoon, but possibly getting a ‘second wind’ or burst of energy in the evening.
It is caused by the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin being released too late, and though research is still being conducted, is thought to still be produced well into the morning in these individuals. Bright early-morning sunlight is considered to be the best way of combating this type of disorder.
If your body clock is running faster than the normal 24-hour day, then you have advanced circadian rhythm disorder, meaning that you run out of energy before the day’s end. It also appears to condense your sleep, so that you may suffer from the inability to get more than eight hours sleep a night, awaken several times during the night, and wake up early.
The natural consequence of the advanced circadian rhythm sleeping disorder is that you feel tired throughout the day.
In this case, it is the premature release of melatonin affecting your sleep, diminishing your alertness during the day. Since bright light will suppress melatonin production, you need to use a specialized, artificial, bright light in the late afternoon – and make your nighttime as dark as possible.
This includes winding down properly in the late evening, without the visual excitement of bright television or computer images zipping past your eyes and whipping your biological self into a no-sleep frenzy. Many doctors lament that the introduction of televisions into bedrooms around the world has significantly worsened sleep habits.
As with many ailments, letting it go untreated will see it get worse. A mild problem could develop into a moderate disorder and so on. Not getting enough sleep, when you need it, is clearly not good for you.
Infants up to six months old may get up to 16 hours sleep a day and at varying times of the day – more than they will ever get again in their lives. Adults need to be aiming for around eight hours of sleep, at night, but as with many cultures like Egypt’s and that of other Mediterranean countries, this may actually be more like the majority of those hours at night and the rest in the form of a nap during the day.
For some, getting to sleep is a mixture of routine, relaxation techniques, some meditation, or even taking medication. For others, it’s simply about switching off the light.
Whatever your triggers are, just spend some time getting to know them, and you too can sleep the sleep of the Gods. And don’t even get me started on what the late-night suhoor meals during Ramadan and early-morning prayers year-round do for us physically .