Life on planet Earth is closely attuned to the movement of the sun. Humans have been saluting the sun for thousands of years. We are diurnal beings who are powered by the sun. We go to bed when it gets dark, and wake up when it gets light. But in our modern society, we tend to go about our days without giving the sun a second thought. We use phones, watches and other technology to keep us organized and on time. Unfortunately, this ever-changing world of technology can put our sleep cycles out of alignment and our nervous systems into overdrive. This constant connection to the external world actually pulls us further and further away from our heart intelligence and creates a lack of connection with the self.
Let’s explore the sun and begin to dissect why we go down and get up with it on a daily basis. The sleep cycle all starts with a small gland in the brain called the pineal gland. This gland regulates our sleep cycles with sunset and sunrise and is otherwise known as our circadian rhythm. The brain’s circadian rhythm plays a part in a number of the body’s processes including: sleeping and eating patterns; capacity for alertness; our core body temperature; hormone production; regulation of glucose and insulin levels; urine production; and cell regeneration. In other words, it’s pretty important.
To go a little further, the pineal gland works with a 24-hour clock to produce the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is known as the sleep hormone because it is the release of this hormone that makes us sleepy. This hormone is secreted a few hours before bedtime when the sun has gone down. Typically, we are in our deepest state of rest at the beginning of the sleep cycle. This is when human growth hormone (HGH) is secreted, a hormone essential that contributes to bone health and muscle growth in children, and healthy metabolism in adults. Cortisol is then secreted closer to our waking time, giving us the energy to get up in the morning.
In the daytime, sunlight sensitive cells in our eyes send signals to the pineal gland to halt the production of melatonin. Even bright lights can have this effect on the pineal gland, which is why we hear advisories against watching television or using computers or mobile phones before bedtime.
During the day, the sun is a catalyst for the production of vitamin D (produced when the sun strikes the skin). Vitamin D is used to help the digestive system absorb calcium and phosphorus, nutrients that are vital to the maintenance of healthy bones. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart disease, statin-related muscle pain, and infection.
The circadian rhythm is a delicate system that is dependent on the sun. The system is sensitive to things like season change, shift work and even time changes such as daylight savings. But we amplify the negative impacts of circadian misalignment when we succumb to the pressure of wanting to do more and know more. We get up early, work hard, stay up late, and then start all over again. In this fast-paced world filled with expectations, we seem to push ourselves to the limit and take our natural regulating rhythm for granted. This can lead to exhaustion and even disease if sustained for too long.
A well-balanced internal clock is important for both physical and mental health. It’s not always easy or realistic to honor a rigid 24-hour cycle, but here’s a few tips to improve the regulation of your circadian rhythm.
- If possible, wake with the sun.
- Take 30 seconds each day to show gratitude to the sun. You might notice that this automatically makes you feel connected and alive.
- Limit intake of caffeine, alcohol, and other stimulants.
- Spend some time outside in the early morning or late afternoon (taking measures to avoid midday UV light can decrease negative impacts substantially such as sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancers.)
- Take steps to be more in tune with nature and your health will see improvements (take a walk outside or grow a plant).
- Turn screens off after dark or at least 90 minutes before bed.
- Make sure the temperature of your room isn’t too warm at night. Your body temperature naturally decreases when you’re sleeping so if your room is too warm, you might be fighting your body’s natural temperature and depriving yourself of a quality sleep.
- Connect to your own true nature. Every one of us is programmed with information about how to best take care of the body and mind. We just have to take a moment to listen.
By Erica Matechuk – Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 200)