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Sleep is governed by our biological circadian rhythms that synchronize with nature's daily time clock composed of daylight and night or darkness. We instinctively tune our internal circadian rhythms to follow the rhythm of mother nature.
Our internal biological systems function on circadian rhythms, which regulate our sleep-wake cycle over an average 24-hour period. Although internally regulated, our circadian rhythm is also influenced by our behavior and external environmental factors that affect our natural sleep patterns.
The circadian rhythm of an individual anywhere in the world is predominantly determined by their visual response to light and dark. The difference in daylight hours between the four seasons impacts our circadian rhythm, which is never constant but rather a response to light and other external influences.
The foundation of natural life is based on the fact that light promotes wakefulness and darkness promotes sleep; however, the complications of lifestyle choices, artificial light, and our ability to travel to different time zones play havoc with the natural order of our circadian rhythms.
Nearly every tissue and organ in our body functions on its biological clock, which is linked to the master clock in our brain that ultimately regulates our circadian rhythm.
Our circadian rhythm is regulated by a group of about 20 000 nerve cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the brain's hypothalamus region, which receives and responds to direct input from the eyes. To simplify circadian rhythm, our biological clock regulates our sleep pattern, but it also caters to the means to perform daytime activities optimally.
Babies are not born with a functioning circadian rhythm but have a weak sleep-wake rhythm connected to the mother. The SCN systematically processes light information detected through the eyes' retina that begins establishing circadian rhythms. The following are essential building blocks that form a large part of circadian rhythms:
Establishing circadian rhythm in a newborn takes between 8 and 11 weeks. At 8 weeks old, a cortisol rhythm develops, melatonin develops at 9 weeks, and body temperature rhythm and circadian genes develop at 11 weeks.
The circadian rhythm established in infants is primarily influenced by exposure to light, including normal daylight and artificial light at night. A baby milestone that parents celebrate is the first time that their little one sleeps through the night. But many parents don't consider the impact of blue wavelength-rich artificial light on their child's early development, which should be a big concern.
A large TV screen mounted on the wall in the main bedroom that you share with your newborn for the first few months is a common feature in many homes. Everything is connected to the screen, including the soft baby lullaby music played to calm the little one into a state of sleep. Digital screens emit blue light, which interferes with our circadian rhythm.
I know you may think that when a baby's eyes are closed, all light is blocked. Do this in a dark room, push a small flashlight against the palm of your hand or at the tip of your finger below your fingernail. You will see how light can penetrate skin and tissue. This will give you an idea of how effective eyelids are at blocking light.
Medical professionals warn against the impact of light on newborns. What is known is that a change in the peripheral circadian genes has been linked to changes in blood pressure, airway inflammation, and immune response. Furthermore, the imprinted circadian rhythm of the newborn remains into adulthood.
Circadian entrainment is essential in newborns. Entrainment is the synchronizing of our internal biological clock with external environmental cues. For this reason, an infant needs to be exposed to daylight and evening that evolve into darkness. There must be a balance for effective synchronization to be locked in, and exposure to sunlight is the key.
As a side note, if an infant has a congenital cataract and is not treated immediately, vision will not develop, which will impede the establishment of the circadian rhythm. This also applies if the infant does not receive the appropriate day/night exposure.
Sleep is essential to good health, both physical and mental health. A sleep routine is usually established to have the right amount of sleep in a 24-hour cycle to maintain good health.
We train our children from infancy to develop a healthy sleep routine which shows that we are aware of the importance of quality sleep; yet, sleep is the first thing we are willing to compromise when the going gets tough.
Reducing or disrupting sleep can have serious consequences, potentially throwing our circadian rhythms out of sync. Here are a few examples:
Drastic changes that affect our internal biological clocks will lead to sleep disorders and cascade into chronic health conditions that include obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder, among other health risks.
Underlying medical conditions related to sleep disorders may affect circadian rhythms. These include:
Seek help. Sleep disorders negatively affect circadian rhythms and can lead to more pressing health issues like strokes, heart attacks, hypertension, and psychosis, to mention a few. If you are experiencing a sleep disorder like sleep deprivation, it may take medical intervention to help you restore your circadian rhythm. Don't hesitate to call your doctor.
Although much research on our circadian rhythms has been conducted, researchers are discovering new and innovative ways to treat conditions like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) by focusing on how our circadian rhythms regulate fear memory and stress response.
By better understanding the interaction between the circadian system and fear memory processing in the brain.
Research on how circadian rhythms regulate brain processes is an area of science not extensively explored.
However, recent studies show the circadian system's critical role in many different neurological disorders like schizophrenia, eating disorders, drug addiction, and alcoholism.
The many different research topics on the circadian system have provided startling evidence of how intertwined circadian rhythms are in every facet of our being. Quality sleep appears to be the spinoff of a healthy synchronized circadian rhythm system.
Good health starts with a set sleep routine, and we should endeavor to be more disciplined in how we install good sleep habits in our children, but we as adults must lead by example.
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