# 9.3: Problems With Circadian Rhythms

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Generally, and for most people, our circadian cycles are aligned with the outside world. For example, most people sleep during the night and are awake during the day. One important regulator of sleep-wake cycles is the hormone melatonin. The pineal gland, an endocrine structure located inside the brain that releases melatonin, is thought to be involved in the regulation of various biological rhythms and of the immune system during sleep (Hardeland et al., 2006). Melatonin release is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light.

There are individual differences with regards to our sleep- wake cycle. For instance, some people would say they are morning people, while others would consider themselves to be night owls. These individual differences in circadian patterns of activity are known as a person’s chronotype, and research demonstrates that morning larks and night owls differ with regard to sleep regulation (Taillard et al., 2003). Sleep regulation refers to the brain’s control of switching between sleep and wakefulness as well as coordinating this cycle with the outside world.

Watch this brief video describing circadian rhythms and how they affect sleep.

## Disruptions of Normal Sleep

Whether lark, owl, or somewhere in between, there are situations in which a person’s circadian clock gets out of synchrony with the external environment. One way that this happens involves traveling across multiple time zones. When we do this, we often experience jet lag. Jet lag is a collection of symptoms that results from the mismatch between our internal circadian cycles and our environment. These symptoms include fatigue, sluggishness, irritability, and insomnia (i.e., a consistent difficulty in falling or staying asleep for at least three nights a week over a month’s time) (Roth, 2007).

Individuals who do rotating shift work are also likely to experience disruptions in circadian cycles. Rotating shift work refers to a work schedule that changes from early to late on a daily or weekly basis. For example, a person may work from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Monday, 3:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, and 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday. In such instances, the individual’s schedule changes so frequently that it becomes difficult for a normal circadian rhythm to be maintained. This often results in sleeping problems, and it can lead to signs of depression and anxiety. These kinds of schedules are common for individuals working in health care professions and service industries, and they are associated with persistent feelings of exhaustion and agitation that can make someone more prone to making mistakes on the job (Gold et al., 1992; Presser, 1995).

Rotating shift work has pervasive effects on the lives and experiences of individuals engaged in that kind of work, which is clearly illustrated in stories reported in a qualitative study that researched the experiences of middle-aged nurses who worked rotating shifts (West et al., 2009). Several of the nurses interviewed commented that their work schedules affected their relationships with their family. One of the nurses said,

If you’ve had a partner who does work regular job 9 to 5 office hours . . . the ability to spend time, good time with them when you’re not feeling absolutely exhausted . . . that would be one of the problems that I’ve encountered. (West et al., 2009, p. 114)

While disruptions in circadian rhythms can have negative consequences, there are things we can do to help us realign our biological clocks with the external environment. Some of these approaches, such as using a bright light as shown in Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$, have been shown to alleviate some of the problems experienced by individuals suffering from jet lag or from the consequences of rotating shift work. Because the biological clock is driven by light, exposure to bright light during working shifts and dark exposure when not working can help combat insomnia and symptoms of anxiety and depression (Huang et al., 2013).

Watch this video to learn tips on how to overcome jet lag.

## Insufficient Sleep

When people have difficulty getting sleep due to their work or the demands of day-to-day life, they accumulate a sleep debt. A person with a sleep debt does not get sufficient sleep on a chronic basis. The consequences of sleep debt include decreased levels of alertness and mental efficiency. Interestingly, since the advent of electric light, the amount of sleep that people get has declined. While we certainly welcome the convenience of having the darkness lit up, we also suffer the consequences of reduced amounts of sleep because we are more active during the nighttime hours than our ancestors were. As a result, many of us sleep less than 7–8 hours a night and accrue a sleep debt. While there is tremendous variation in any given individual’s sleep needs, the National Sleep Foundation (n.d.) cites research to estimate that newborns require the most sleep (between 12 and 18 hours a night) and that this amount declines to just 7–9 hours by the time we are adults.

If you lie down to take a nap and fall asleep very easily, chances are you may have sleep debt. Given that college students are notorious for suffering from significant sleep debt (Hicks et al., 1992; Hicks et al., 2001; Miller et al., 2010), chances are you and your classmates deal with sleep debt– related issues on a regular basis. In 2015, the National Sleep Foundation updated their sleep duration hours, to better accommodate individual differences. Figure $$\PageIndex{2}$$ shows the new recommendations.

Sleep debt and sleep deprivation have significant negative psychological and physiological consequences Figure $$\PageIndex{3}$$. As mentioned earlier, lack of sleep can result in decreased mental alertness and cognitive function. In addition, sleep deprivation often results in depression-like symptoms. These effects can occur as a function of accumulated sleep debt or in response to more acute periods of sleep deprivation. It may surprise you to know that sleep deprivation is associated with obesity, increased blood pressure, increased levels of stress hormones, and reduced immune functioning (Banks & Dinges, 2007). A sleep deprived individual generally will fall asleep more quickly than if she were not sleep deprived. Some sleep-deprived individuals have difficulty staying awake when they stop moving (e.g., sitting and watching television or driving a car). That is why individuals suffering from sleep deprivation can put themselves and others at risk when they get behind the wheel of a car or work with dangerous machinery. Some research suggests that sleep deprivation affects cognitive and motor function as much as, if not more than, alcohol intoxication (Williamson & Feyer, 2000).

The amount of sleep we get varies across the lifespan. When we are very young, we spend up to 16 hours a day sleeping. As we grow older, we sleep less. In fact, a meta-analysis, which is a study that combines the results of many related studies, conducted within the last decade indicates that by the time we are 65 years old, we average fewer than 7 hours of sleep per day (Ohayon et al., 2004). As the amount of time we sleep varies over our lifespan, presumably the sleep debt would adjust accordingly.

## REFERENCES

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Gold, D. R., Rogacz, S. R., Bock, N., Tosteson, T. D., Baum, T. M., Speizer, F. M., & Czeisler, C. A. (1992). Rotating shift work, sleep, and accidents related to sleepiness in hospital nurses. American Journal of Public Health, 82, 1011–1014. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.82.7.1011

Hardeland, R., Pandi-Perumal, S. R., & Cardinali, D. P. (2006). Melatonin. International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology, 38, 313–316. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocel.2005.08.020

Hicks, R. A., Fernandez, C., & Pelligrini, R. J. (2001). The changing sleep habits of university students: An update. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 93, 648. https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.2001.93.3.648

Hicks, R. A., Johnson, C., & Pelligrini, R. J. (1992). Changes in the self-reported consistency of normal habitual sleep duration of college students (1978 and 1992). Perceptual and Motor Skills, 75, 1168–1170. https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.1992.75.3f.1168

Huang, L. B., Tsai, M. C., Chen, C. Y., & Hsu, S. C. (2013). The effectiveness of light/dark exposure to treat insomnia in female nurses undertaking shift work during the evening/night shift. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 9, 641–646. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.2824

Klein, D. C., Moore, R. Y., & Reppert, S. M. (Eds.). (1991). Suprachiasmatic nucleus: The mind’s clock. Oxford University Press.

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National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). How much sleep do we really need? www.sleepfoundation.org/arti...much-sleep-do- we-really-need

Ohayon, M. M., Carskadon, M. A., Guilleminault, C., & Vitiello, M. V. (2004). Meta-analysis of quantitative sleep parameters from childhood to old age in healthy individuals: Developing normative sleep values across the human lifespan. Sleep, 27, 1255–1273. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/27.7.1255

Presser, H. B. (1995). Job, family, and gender: Determinants of nonstandard work schedules among employed Americans in 1991. Demography, 32, 577–598. https://doi.org/10.2307/2061676

Roth, T. (2007). Insomnia: Definition, prevalence, etiology, and consequences. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 3(5 Suppl.), S7–S10. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.26929

Taillard, J., Philip, P., Coste, O., Sagaspe, P., & Bioulac, B. (2003). The circadian and homeostatic modulation of sleep pressure during wakefulness differs between morning and evening chronotypes.

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Waterhouse, J., Fukuda, Y., & Morita, T. (2012). Daily rhythms of the sleep-wake cycle. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 31(1), 5. https://doi.org/10.1186/1880-6805-31-5

Welsh, D. K. Takahashi, J. S., & Kay, S. A. (2010). Suprachiasmatic nucleus: Cell autonomy and network properties. Annual Review of Physiology, 72, 551–577. doi.org/10.1146/annurev-physiol- 021909-135919

West, S., Boughton, M., & Byrnes, M. (2009). Juggling multiple temporalities: The shift work story of mid-life nurses. Journal of Nursing Management, 17, 110–119. doi.org/10.1111/ j.1365-2834.2008.00920.x

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This page titled 9.3: Problems With Circadian Rhythms is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kate Votaw.