You may have noticed you have different levels of alertness and sleepiness throughout your day. There are two body systems: sleep/wake homeostasis, and your circadian biological clock – that are responsible for these cycles.
When you have been awake for a longer time, your sleep/wake homeostasis will tell you that it is time to sleep. It will also maintain your sleep through the night to counteract for the time you have been awake. If this was the only process in your body then you would be most alert when you first started your day and the longer you were up the more you would feel the need to sleep. Instead, sleep/wake homeostasis creates a balance between sleep and wakefulness.
On the other hand, you have a biological clock, which regulates the periods of wakefulness and sleepiness during the day. Your circadian rhythm rises and dips at various times throughout the day. As an adult, your strongest sleep drive usually occurs sometime between 2:00 am and 4:00 am, and then in the afternoon between 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm. This will vary some as it depends on whether you are a morning or an evening person.
Your circadian rhythm involves mental, behavioral and physical changes following an approximate 24-hour cycle that responds mainly to light and dark in the environment of the organism. These rhythms don’t just affect humans. Almost every living thing including plants, microbes and animals has a circadian rhythm.
If you have had enough sleep, the sleepiness you experience during your dips will be less intense than if you have been deprived of sleep. This is what also makes you more alert at different times of the day; no matter if you have been awake for hours.
During Your Teen Years
During adolescence, your body undergoes changes. Most teenagers have a sleep phase delay, which has them feeling alert late at night. It is also what makes it hard for them to fall asleep prior to 11:00 pm. Because most teenagers have to be up early for school, it can make it harder for teens to get the sleep they need. They should have at least 8 ½ hours of sleep, but 9 hours is closer to what they need. Between 3:00am and 7:00am, and then between 2:00pm and 5:00pm are the biggest dips for teens. However, teens that are sleep deprived can have a morning dip that’s even longer lasting, until 10:00am in some cases.
Circadian Rhythms vs. Biological Clocks
Do not confuse your circadian rhythm with your biological clock. They are not the same. Your biological clock controls your circadian rhythm, which is a group of interactive molecules in your body’s cells. Your circadian rhythm has a genetic compound.
A ‘master clock’ of sorts that is located in the brain and coordinates all of your body clocks ensuring synchronization. Your master clock is a group of nerve cells located in the brain called the SCN or Suprachiasmatic nucleus.
The Suprachiasmatic Nucleus part of the brain controls the circadian biological clock. The Suprachiasmatic Nucleus or SCN is a group of cells located in the hypothalamus that is responsive to light and dark. It is made up of approximately 20,000 nerve cells.
Light travels to the SCN from the optic nerve of your eye, sending a signal to your internal clock that it’s time to wake up. The SCN sends signals to other regions of the brain to control body temperature, hormones, etc. that play a part in how awake or sleepy we feel.
In the morning, once you are exposed to light, a signal is sent by the SCN to raise your body temperature and produce cortisol, along with delaying the release of melatonin, which is linked to sleep. This is why your melatonin levels go up in the evening and stay elevated all night, which promotes sleep.
The Affect Your Circadian Clock Has on Your Health
Your circadian rhythm is produced by factors within your body along with environmental signals. Light is your circadian rhythm’s main cue. Your circadian rhythm influences your sleep patterns, wake cycles, body temperature, hormone release and other bodily functions.
Your circadian rhythm is also linked to a number of sleep disorders. An abnormal circadian rhythm can affect diabetes, obesity, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Bipolar Disorder.
Circadian Rhythm and Jet Lag
If your travel has disrupted your circadian rhythm, it can cause jet lag. This happens when you go through one or more different time zones and your body’s clock is much different from the time zone you are in. For example, you fly from California to New York State, which causes a loss of 3 hours. You awaken at 7:00am but your body thinks its 4:00am so you are still groggy and tired. After a few days, your body will adjust.
The Study of Circadian Rhythms
Scientists study humans to learn more about the circadian rhythm. They carry out various experiments where the environment is controlled. Light and/or dark periods are altered to see if there are changes to gene activity.
The circadian rhythm is also studied to better understand the body’s biological clock and health problems that can occur as a result of your circadian rhythm.
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