There are physical and mental health benefits to keeping with a daily routine, particularly as it relates to sleep. The natural patterns and activities that occur in a 24 hour period are referred to as our circadian rhythms. Our sleep-wake cycle is an example of our circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythms impact many aspects of our functioning: hormones, eating, sleeping, and moods. They occur in all living beings and prove to be critical to maintain health and wellbeing for people.
Our daily circadian rhythms are thought to be controlled by neurons in the hypothalamus. This area of the brain regulates numerous behavioral and physiological functions of the body including: eating, drinking, emotional state, and internal body temperature.
Scientists have researched the impact of disrupted circadian rhythms for years in small scale studies. The primary focus of these studies has been researching individuals who work rotating or night shifts, as well as people who live in geographical areas that have unusual natural light patterns. Research generally supports that workers on the night shift and who experience less natural light are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.
A larger scale study was recently conducted at the University of Glasgow. Findings confirm that when circadian rhythms are dysregulated, it is associated with increased risk of mood disorders, both depression and bipolar disorder. Researchers also noted lower subjective wellbeing, higher neuroticism and increased mood instability in individuals with disrupted rhythms.
In this study, 91,000 adults in the United Kingdom were assessed. Researchers measured disruptions in the participants’ circadian rhythms using an accelerometer, a device worn on their wrist. This counting device tracked their daily activities. Results demonstrate that individuals with more disruptions (i.e., increased activity at night and decreased daytime activity) were significantly more likely to have symptoms of a mood disorder. In addition, these individuals were more inclined to have lower levels of well-being and reduced cognitive functioning. Participants emotional health was measured by mental health questionnaires. Cognitive functioning was measured by participants’ taking a computer-based reaction timed test.
While common sense tells us that a good night sleep is important for overall health, this study reinforces the strong impact being in a regular rhythm can have, positively or negatively.
While changes in sleep and activity level are common for individuals experiencing mood disorders or symptoms of depression, this study does not provide evidence for a cause-effect relationship. Although there is a correlation, it is unclear of the rhythm disturbances led to the depression symptoms or the depressive symptoms led to the rhythm changes. However, mental health professions indicate there could be important implications from these results. The study provides important insights that will continue to help scientists understand the interplay with circadian rhythms and mental health.
It also provides a platform for future studies to assess what risk factors may be present for people who are inclined to experience disrupted rhythms. It also could lead to advances in treatment interventions and how improving sleep hygiene and life habit routines may enhance wellbeing and decrease mental health symptoms.
Scientists find these results quite relevant, especially with certain populations including: individuals who live in a loud city, work varying shifts, or who live in an area with less natural light.
Considering the emotional and cognitive benefits associated with regular circadian rhythms, it would make sense to pay attention to our daily routines. Experts suggest practical methods such as: going to bed at the same time every night, no caffeine later in the day, ensure high activity periods during the day, and limiting electronics before bed. The results bring hope for possible prevention programs as well as treatment protocols in the world of mental health.
Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.