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Our body has tiny sensors all over the place that keep everything running smoothly. But we also have a master clock in our brain that drives our circadian rhythm, which is our 24-hour cycle that controls important things like our body temperature, our hunger and our sleep. That Master Clock is connected directly to our eyes, and therefore light has a big influence and effect on it. When we open our eyes in the morning, light floods our brain. It also tells our brain to stop making melatonin, the sleeping hormone, and later in the day flips the melatonin production back on for us to sleep.

Most people’s body clocks run on similar schedules but as for every rule, there are also exceptions. As we get older, also our body clock goes through some changes. While newborns sleep up to 17 hours a day, teenagers need more like 10 hours, tend to stay up later and sleep in longer. Most adults typically settle around 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Once we grow over age 65, we might see other shifts, such as waking up earlier. We might think at times we can pull a string of late nights and make up for the lost sleep over the weekend. But it doesn’t work that way. Our body craves a certain routine and late nights and sleeping in can actually keep us out of sync. In case we do grab some extra sleeping time, it’s advisable to keep it to an hour or two at most

Another disturbing factor to our body clock is traveling across different time zones, which causes the so-called jet lag. While a time difference of 3 hours may not seem a big deal from the outset, the next day when the alarm clock says for example 7am and our body clock says its 4am, it might take some time to adjust. The more time zones we cross, especially when travelling east, the worse it likely gets. A rule of thumb is that our body may require up to a day per hour of time zone we cross when traveling to adjust back to normal. The same goes for adjusting our clocks twice a year for daylight saving. It’s like a mini jet lag, but without traveling.

When our body clock is off, it doesn’t just mess up our sleep, but our hormones, our digestion, and even our immune system can be affected. It is believed that fighting against our clock can make us sick and some scientific studies even show connections between our circadian rhythms being out of order and conditions like cancer, diabetes, bipolar disease and obesity (compare to the recent post “Why We Sleep”).

Another big point of debate are naps. Are they good for us or not? Naps can be good for us provided we are smart about them. A short 20-30 minutes nap early afternoon can make us more relaxed, more alert, more productive and it can also boost our mood. It usually won’t cause problems with our sleeping at night. However, longer and untimely naps can well interfere with our sleeping rhythm and subsequently keep us awake when we don’t want to be. In any case, naps are certainly not a substitute for a good sleeping habit.

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