Learn how to help people stabilize and strengthen their circadian rhythms.
A person deciding to resynchronize their circadian rhythm faces a difficult journey. They will need guidance and support to overcome the challenges they will face. These obstacles may include:
uncertainty, confusion, and mistakes
judgement from their friends, family, and co-workers
difficulty changing personal habits and addictions
fear of nighttime crime, fire, and the supernatural1
Each person's experience will be unique, but in this post, I will share what I have learned so far. I hope it empowers you to help those in your care, whether familial or professional, to make this shift.
With the proper information and social support, I know you can help even the most stubborn. They can immediately enjoy greater waking alertness and more restful sleep2. In the long-term, many health conditions may slow, stop, or even reverse. Search the web for the conditions that concern you plus "circadian disruption." You will find that circadian rhythms are integral to wellness.
To guide someone to success, help them follow this simple but effective plan. This plan came out of months of research and years of personal experience. Here's how it goes:
First, optimize the thermostat. It is important that nights are cooler than days3.
Second, optimize the night lights. It is important that nighttime lighting is dim4. Nightlights should be no brighter than 3.0 lux (or 1.0 lux for sensitive individuals). Night lights also need to have blue and green tones excluded.
Third, optimize the day lights. It is important to get bright light during the day5. Seek professional help if anyone in the household takes prescription drugs or has a diagnosed mental illness.
Finally, optimize personal schedules and habits (this gets its own section later on).
Along with these changes, make the soundscape more quiet at night6.
This plan is unique in that it requires next to no willpower from the individual. It works because the ambient environment is the main driver of rhythmicity.
Within an ambient environment that mimics nature activity can take place 24-7. Morning larks, night owls, crepuscular critters... no one will have environmental circadian disturbance. This is another unique feature about this plan: it accommodates all schedules.
Speaking of schedules, there are 2 main ways people's circadian rhythms go astray7.
There is too much variation in their day-to-day. This can be from work schedules, jet-lag, partying, or environment.
There is too little variation in their day-to-day. This can be from indoor living, and especially the for the bedridden.
Perceiving the differences between these patterns can help you tailor your advice. If it is a work problem, you can help them:
research their condition
find a doctor versed in chronotherapies for that condition to write a prescription
pitch to their employer on circadian lighting and schedules
If it is a lifestyle problem, their bad habits may fall away on their own as they improve their environments. Here the activities that matter most:
Most people think of humans as diurnal creatures (meaning they are active during the day only). And most people are diurnal. But, humanity as a whole functions around the clock. Based on opportunities and threats, humans can be awake at any time of day or night. Biologists call this "cathemerality" or "cathemeral" behavior.
To improve personal schedules, consider the daily timing of each of the activities. To avoid disruption, a schedule should stay consistent for >6 weeks at a time8. Aside from staying regular, schedules can actually be quite different and still be ok. A few recommendations:
Allow for short daytime naps if desired
Fast for the final 2.5 hours before bedtime
Aim for at least one 6 hour sleep window that overlaps the natural darkness
Mild exercise is recommended in the morning, but high-intensity exercise should be saved for afternoon9
Within these guidelines, individuals should find their own natural rhythms. For example, some people like—or even need—to nap; others don't enjoy napping at all. Some are most alert in the morning; others don't quite “wake up” until dusk. As long as the environment has good cues (light, temperature, sound), there are infinite schedule possibilities.
As you coach someone into this new lifestyle, they may act either reluctant or eager at first. Once they commit, they may have burst of enthusiasm. This is a great time to have long, in-depth conversations, share research, and be available. As they go on, they will need less and less support. Some may backlash and rebel against the changes altogether. Others may incorporate only one or two changes and then stall. As a coach, it is important to remain unattached to their outcomes. They are their own beings, and you can only help them as far as they are willing.
It can also be helpful to keep in mind that the longer a person has been out of sync, the longer it may take to get back on track. But that doesn't mean it is impossible! Patience and perseverance are key. In my upcoming email, I will share tips for helping an entire household make this transition. Community can make or break an individual's circadian success.
I hope this guide is helpful! Please let me know what you think, and feel free to reach out with any questions or suggestions!