How does your body know when it’s time to sleep? Why do you suffer from jet lag after arriving in a new time zone? How do you overcome jet lag? Why does that acclimatization cause you yet more jet lag upon returning home? Why do some people use melatonin to combat these issues? Why (and how) does a cup of coffee keep you awake? Perhaps most importantly, how do you know if you’re getting enough sleep? There are two main factors that determine when you want to sleep and when you want to be awake. As you read these very words, both factors are powerfully influencing your mind and body. The first factor is a signal beamed out from your internal twenty-four-hour clock located deep within your brain.
The clock creates a cycling, day-night rhythm that makes you feel tired or alert at regular times of night and day, respectively. The second factor is a chemical substance that builds up in your brain and creates a “sleep pressure.” The longer you’ve been awake, the more that chemical sleep pressure accumulates, and consequentially, the sleepier you feel. It is the balance between these two factors that dictates how alert and attentive you are during the day, when you will feel tired and ready for bed at night, and, in part, how well you will sleep.
Central to many of the questions in the opening paragraph is the powerful sculpting force of your twenty-four-hour rhythm, also known as your circadian rhythm. Everyone generates a circadian rhythm (circa, meaning “around,” and dian, derivative of diam, meaning “day”). Indeed, every living creature on the planet with a life span of more than several days generates this natural cycle. The internal twenty-four-hour clock within your brain communicates its daily circadian rhythm signal to every other region of your brain and every organ in your body.
Your twenty-four-hour tempo helps to determine when you want to be awake and when you want to be asleep. But it controls other rhythmic patterns, too. These include your timed preferences for eating and drinking, your moods and emotions, the amount of urine you produce,I your core body temperature, your metabolic rate, and the release of numerous hormones. It is no coincidence that the likelihood of breaking an Olympic record has been clearly tied to time of day, being maximal at the natural peak of the human circadian rhythm in the early afternoon. Even the timing of births and deaths demonstrates circadian rhythmicity due to the marked swings in key life-dependent metabolic, cardiovascular, temperature, and hormonal processes that this pacemaker controls.
Your biological circadian rhythm coordinates a drop in core body temperature as you near typical bedtime (figure 1), reaching its nadir, or low point, about two hours after sleep onset. However, this temperature rhythm is not dependent upon whether you are actually asleep. If I were to keep you awake all night, your core body temperature would still show the same pattern. Although the temperature drop helps to initiate sleep, the temperature change itself will rise and fall across the twenty-four-hour period regardless of whether you are awake or asleep. It is a classic demonstration of a preprogrammed circadian rhythm that will repeat over and over without fail, like a metronome. Temperature is just one of many twenty-four-hour rhythms that the suprachiasmatic nucleus governs. Wakefulness and sleep are another. Wakefulness and sleep are therefore under the control of the circadian rhythm, and not the other way around. That is, your circadian rhythm will march up and down every twenty-four hours irrespective of whether you have slept or not. Your circadian rhythm is unwavering in this regard. But look across individuals, and you discover that not everyone’s circadian timing is the same.