Melatonin and circadian rhythm always go hand in hand, so a problem with one will naturally cause a problem in the other. Circadian rhythm disorder comes in different forms, and each of these has different causes. But melatonin plays a role in all forms of circadian rhythm disorder, which means melatonin can also help with treatment.
Melatonin and Circadian Rhythm Disorder
As the body’s “sleep chemical,” melatonin is responsible for regulating circadian rhythm, or the body’s 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. When internal or external factors disrupt the sleep-wake cycle so that your brain and body remain awake at night when melatonin levels are high and/or go to sleep during the day when melatonin levels are low, your circadian rhythm can get messed up.
Article at a Glance
- Circadian rhythm sleep disorders occur when your sleep-wake cycle falls out of sync with your environment.
- The different abnormal patterns of sleep and wakefulness that characterize different forms of circadian rhythm disorder may be caused by certain activities/habits, such as shift work, and other health conditions, such as stress or chronic pain.
- Inadequate melatonin or melatonin production that’s asynchronous with the sleep-wake cycle may cause circadian rhythm problems.
What are circadian rhythm sleep disorders?
Also known as Sleep-Wake Cycle Disorders, Circadian Rhythm Disorders are problems that occur when there is a misalignment between your sleep-wake cycle and your environment.
There are several types of Circadian Rhythm Disorder, each of which is determined based on the pattern of sleep and wakefulness:
- Advanced sleep-wake phase disorder (ASWPD) is characterized by difficulty staying awake in the early evening and waking up too early in the morning.
- Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder (DSWPD) is characterized by falling asleep later than you would like, difficulty waking up on time in the morning, and getting too little sleep.
- Irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder (ISWRD) is characterized by several short periods of sleep and wakefulness.
- Jet lag disorder is often a temporary disorder caused by travelling across at least two time zones.
- Non–24-hour sleep-wake rhythm disorder occurs when the person’s sleep-wake rhythm falls out of sync with the 24-hour day, such as when light exposure is severely limited.
- Shift work disorder affects those who work nights and sleep during daytime.
What causes circadian rhythm sleep disorders?
For diurnal creatures such as humans, the body’s biological clock follows the 24-hour cycle of sleeping at night (when it’s dark) and being awake during the day (when it’s light). This cycle is also referred to as the circadian clock, and the repeating cycle of the circadian clock is called the circadian rhythm. In humans and many other animals, melatonin plays a key role in regulating circadian rhythms.
Melatonin is produced in the brain by the pineal gland in response to environmental cues — specifically, light and dark. As the sun sets and it gets darker, the pineal gland produces melatonin to signal the body to go to sleep; as the sun rises and it gets lighter, melatonin production declines to signal the body to wake up. This is why dimming or turning off the lights in the bedroom, using blackout curtains, and staying away from the blue light of phone and TV screens are important to getting a good night’s sleep.
Disruptions in melatonin and circadian rhythms may be caused by:
- Poor sleeping habits
- Extremely busy lifestyle
- Chronic pain
Temporary disruptions in the sleep-wake cycle are normal, such as when you have to work late or when you travel to a different time zone. When the disruptions interfere with daily activities, then you may have a circadian rhythm disorder.
Circadian Rhythm Disorder may also become a long-term problem when it is associated with aging, a genetic predisposition, or a medical condition.
Symptoms of Circadian Rhythm Disorder vary depending on the type of disorder you have, but common ones include:
- Consistent difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or both
- Excessive daytime sleepiness or sleepiness during shift work
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Decreased alertness and difficulty concentrating
Impaired judgment and trouble controlling mood and emotions
- Aches and pains, including headaches
- Stomach problems, in people who have jet lag disorder.
Management and Treatment
The type and severity of the disorder will determine the kind of treatment you’ll receive. But the overall treatment goal is to reset the body’s circadian rhythm to align it with the environment. The treatment plan may include any combination of the following.
- Lifestyle changes. This involves establishing a daily routine with activities that are separately set for daytime and nighttime. These routines may include regular meal schedules; a regular bedtime routine; minimal or zero daytime naps; regular exercise; limited intake of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and some medicines in the afternoon or before bedtime; and light exposure management.
- Light therapy. This involves the use of a light box to help readjust melatonin levels in the body. The therapy can help reset sleep and wake times either earlier or later.
- Melatonin. Melatonin medicines or supplements may be recommended by your doctor to help reset your body’s circadian rhythm. This treatment helps promote sleep at the desired time and may improve quality of sleep by boosting melatonin levels.
Melatonin and Circadian Rhythm
Melatonin and circadian rhythm are intricately linked, and most circadian rhythm problems can be managed by supplementing with melatonin. As melatonin controls when you get sleepy and your sleep patterns in response to environmental cues, your body’s biological clock normally makes you feel the most tired between midnight and 7 a.m. and mildly sleepy between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. The melatonin levels in the body spike during these hours.
When certain activities or habits are at odds with the powerful effects of melatonin, such as when shift workers have to stay up all night to work and go to sleep during the day, the circadian rhythm gets disrupted.
One of the easiest ways to manage common sleep problems is through melatonin supplements. If you have to sleep during the day when your melatonin levels are at their lowest, for example, you can increase your melatonin by taking a melatonin supplement. If you suffer from insomnia as a result of jet lag or stress, a melatonin supplement can help you “switch off.”
Keep in mind, however, that melatonin supplements are not regulated by the FDA. While studies have found that melatonin can be beneficial in promoting better sleep, it’s important to choose a product made by a reputable manufacturer to ensure quality and safety. And as much as possible, always consult your doctor before starting any kind of supplement, especially if you’re already taking other medications.
Your body’s circadian rhythm and melatonin production are key to having a good night’s sleep. Your circadian rhythm can get out of whack and cause sleep problems when your sleep-wake cycle is no longer aligned with your environment, i.e., when you’re still up at night because of work or a social engagement or when you travel to a different time zone.
Some circadian rhythm problems can be fixed by simple lifestyle changes; more serious types of circadian rhythm disorder may require a more comprehensive and targeted treatment plan. It’s always best to see a doctor if you’re experiencing prolonged or chronic sleep difficulties; proper diagnosis is important to determine the most effective treatment.