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MS and your Circadian Rhythm

By Matt Cavallo

In my previous article, we discussed the multiple sclerosis and sleep disorders. Now, we will discuss our circadian rhythm and how establishing a routine can help you in your fight against MS.

According to the National Institute of Health, circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment. Your circadian rhythm can affect your sleep cycle and lead to sleep disorders like narcolepsy and insomnia. Your circadian rhythm experiences peaks and valleys during a 24 hour period. Whether you are a morning person or a night owl, the average person is going to feel groggy for a couple of hours after lunch and experience peak tiredness from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. in the morning.

Troubles with your circadian rhythm can also be a sleep disorder. According to the Sleep Foundation, delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD), officially called circadian rhythm sleep disorder, delayed sleep phase type, is an inability to fall asleep at a desired, conventional clock time and awaken at a socially acceptable morning time. People suffering from DSPD have a normal quality of sleep when they can adhere to their sleep schedule, but experience interrupted sleep when their sleep schedule is disturbed.

Your circadian rhythm can be trained as shown by people who can work the night shift despite our natural instinct telling us that we need to be asleep at that time. People who work overnight have trained their circadian rhythm to be awake and asleep during the day. One of the way that people can train their circadian rhythm is by exposure to light. People who work overnight often have to create a dark room to sleep during the day. If you are having trouble sleeping at night, try to ensure that you turn off the TV or other sources of light which may disturb your natural circadian rhythm.

Another way to train your circadian rhythm is to establish a sleep schedule. Here are some tips to get on a sleep schedule:
  • Be consistent with the time you go to sleep. You do not want to have too much variation from day to day on the time you try to go to sleep. Of course there are exceptions, but if you can rest at the same time each night you will find your body craves it. In my case, I go to bed early. I have a couple of reasons for that. One, I want to wake up early to walk my dog and get my exercise in to start the day. Two, I travel a lot for work and I find that going to bed early and waking up early keeps me from getting too jet lagged.
  • Make sleep a priority. Staying consistent with your time helps you prioritize your sleep as an important part of your routine. Because of my sleep schedule about 8:30 p.m. each night, I start to get sleepy. If there is a show I want to see, I record it and watch it later. To me, a good night’s sleep is the most important thing.
  • Stay disciplined. Sticking to the routine is an important discipline. On nights where I have to entertain clients or go out with friends for social reasons, I pay for it the next couple of days in terms of fatigue. It takes me a couple of days to get back on that schedule. During that time my circadian rhythm is off and I tend to experience increased fatigue, brain fog and other MS symptoms.
  • Turn off lights and other distractions. I used to love to fall asleep with the TV on. Now, if I forget to turn off the TV, I wake up during the middle of the night and have a hard time going back down. This is the same case if I leave a light on. Once I am awake, my mind starts racing and no matter how tired my body is I can never go back into that deep sleep I need to stay on rhythm.
  • Enjoy the new day’s light. Light is a sleep trigger. Just as you feel tired when it is dark, you naturally feel awake when it is light. Part of getting on a successful sleep schedule is staying awake when it is naturally light out, so that you can be tired by the time your natural sleep cycle kicks in. Get out in the sun if possible, open the shades and enjoy the light of day and then you can concentrate on rest at night.

We all have a natural sleep cycle called our circadian rhythm. This helps tell us when it is time to sleep and when to be awake. If you are living with MS, sleep is a priority. Lack of sleep can lead to fatigue, brain fog and other MS symptoms. To train your circadian rhythm, you can establish a sleep schedule by going to bed at a consistent time, making sleep a priority, staying disciplined to that schedule, turning out lights and other distractions and taking advantage of the light of day. By getting on a sleep schedule, you will find harmony with your circadian rhythm.