February 27, 2024
The Importance of the Circadian Rhythm and Why Biological Timing Is Everything With Alex Dimitrov


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Katie: Hello and welcome to the Wellness Mama podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com, and this episode goes deep and very practical on tips related to the importance of circadian rhythm and why biological timing is everything. And I’m here with Alex Dimitrov, who has lived all over the world and been passionate about these aspects of health since he was young. He was born and raised in Bulgaria and then experienced firsthand what effect lack of light can have when he studied in the Netherlands. And this led to his research related to the subject of light exposure and the development of wearables to actually help improve light signaling related to circadian rhythm and light biology.

And in this episode, we go deep on what circadian biology is and understanding the foundational aspects of it, including the big factors that impact circadian rhythms like light, temperature, exercise, and food, and how to use those to your advantage. Why blue light isn’t bad, but why timing matters so much and actually how to use it to your advantage. Why you don’t want to avoid blue light during the day.

We talk about why even more reasons why morning sunlight is so important, how sunlight can help stimulate the mitochondria and even improve thyroid function when you get bright light exposure during the day, how to optimally time your light exposure for better sleep and better wakefulness during the day. Why we know blue light is harmful at night, but why, even without the blue light aspect, social media exposure at night can interfere with sleep beyond just the light aspect. How every organ has a clock and the master clock in the brain is largely controlled by light, what chronotypes are and how these can shift over time and phases of light.

We talk about a device he created that can help in rainy or dark climates, or for people who can’t get optimal morning light especially, we talk about shift workers, jet lag, and special cases related to these circadian cues and how to use them to your advantage and many, many more topics. Like I said, very practical episode. We also talk about sleep tips for children, with babies, with teenagers, and how to optimize your sleep environment at various phases of life. So let’s jump in and join Alex. Alex. Welcome. Thanks for being here.

Alex: My pleasure. Thank you very much for the invitation. I’m looking forward to that one.

Katie: I am too. We’re going to get to go deep on a lot of aspects of what I think is a very important topic of Circadian Biology and how we can optimize that. Before we jump into the sleep talk though, I would love to hear, I have a note from your bio that you’ve lived in five countries over the last, I think 15 years and I would love to hear which ones and what led to all the moves.

Alex: Yes, of course. I’m happy to share that. So I’m originally from Bulgaria, a small Eastern European country and because of different reasons, I didn’t have the chance to leave my country to go anywhere until I was 20 years old when I did the move to work and travel in Alaska, actually. So I traveled around 15,000 Km to work during the summer in a fish factory. So it was a grueling experience but quite insightful in many ways for me in my personal development. After that I decided to use my savings, what I managed to earn and save in my education. So I did a course in London, I spent some time there, but I also lived in Germany, did my exchange program in Berlin a few years later and then I did my Master’s in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and a few years later, I moved to Spain where I’m currently based in Barcelona.

Katie: Quite the adventures. And those are some beautiful countries to live in. I have a friend who’s actually working on a fishing boat in Alaska right now.

Alex: Oh really? Wow. Very difficult.

Katie: Yeah. Well, you are deeply involved in the research and work around Circadian Biology and I think believe it’s called Chronobiology, which is the science of understanding that. And I would love to go deep on this topic today, but to start off foundationally, can you just explain for us maybe some of the core aspects of Circadian Biology and then from there we’ll talk about the different factors that are big needle movers within affecting Circadian Biology.

Alex: Of course, yes, I’ll be happy to. So, Circadian Biology or Circadian Rhythms is an internal mechanism that each one of us has also animals, plants, and it impacts more or less every biological process we can think of from mood alertness, sleep, immune response, metabolism. Everything in our body is dictated by our internal body clock or Circadian Rhythms. So anything, what Circadian Biology does and Chronobiology is the timing of doing different activities, whether this is any of those. And we see it as a foundation in general health because it impacts everything that we can think of regarding the body.

Katie: And I’ve talked before about some of the factors that really come into play as big needle movers. And people are probably even tired of hearing me talk about light being such an important needle mover when it comes to this. And I’ve talked extensively about morning sunlight, for instance. I’ve even done a whole podcast just about that, as well as, like, midday sun and the different way that different types of light impact our biology. And so I would say from my just personal experience it seems like light, temperature, and food are all big impactors of Circadian Biology. So I’d love for you to explain maybe at a high level how those things impact Circadian Biology and also if there are any other factors that I’ve missed.

Alex: Of course, yeah, I’ll be happy to share that. So light is by far the most powerful signal for our brain and body to regulate the Circadian Rhythm. Morning light of course it is essential for resetting the biological rhythm and the other is general light hygiene includes light during the day and light avoidance in the evening before going to bed. So we want to get as bright light as possible in the morning, during the day, blue light, as we’ll probably talk later during our conversation, what we do with AO is by far the most powerful light to suppress melatonin, regulate the Circadian Rhythm. So that’s why we talk a lot also about blue light in the evening to avoid that. So light is one and it’s the most, let’s say, effective way to regulate and support our Circadian Rhythm.

Second is exercise. So the time of day when we exercise can also shift the rhythm in one direction or the other. Food as you said, especially breakfast and evening. So the type of food which is closer to sleep has a big impact on the Circadian Rhythm and as you said, temperature. So cold showers, warm showers, so this is something that we can play with to kind of further support the Circadian Rhythm but these are kind of the main factors that are influencing it.

Katie: And you said something important there. I think this is important to delve into which is blue light and when it’s important because I think thanks to the biohacking movement people are starting to understand we want to avoid that type of light at night. But I’ve seen almost like a widespread avoidance of blue light because of this and I’ve seen people even wearing really heavy blue blockers during the day and I think it’s important to parse out, blue light itself is not bad from my understanding. In fact it’s actually really important and during the day you want that bright light, you want blue spectrum of light, it’s just the timing right? So can you walk us through maybe in an optimal perspective what light exposure at different times of day looks like?

Alex: Of course, yes, definitely. So blue light, especially blue torquoise light which is the circadian type of light typically between 450 and 500 nm, is the light that is most effective for supporting the Circadian Rhythm and suppressing it. So in the morning upon waking up, ideally we would want to go out and get sunlight that’s typically within the first one or 2 hours. During the day, if we can get light as well, it’s good, but it’s not going to have such a big impact as it is closer to basically in the morning or in the evening before going to bed. Because outside of these hours we get into the so called Circadian Dead Zone, meaning that if you’re getting the light, it’s not going to impact your Circadian Rhythm that much or almost none.

So we want to get bright light, blue light in the morning upon waking up to reset the rhythm, wake up the body. So when we get that type of light, our body gets more alert, our brain gets more alert. A lot of process happen in the body, including increase in metabolism, many other things. And obviously, as you’ve heard many times, avoiding blue light in general, avoiding dimming the lights and avoiding bright light in the evening before going to bed is essential because our eyes are much more susceptible to bright light in the evening than it is in the morning and during the day, when we want to get as much bright light as possible. So even with a little bit of light in the evening, we can actually kind of give this alerting effect to the brain and to keep us awake as well. So yeah, in general, a lot of bright lights in the morning and in the evening we want to dim the lights.

Katie: Yeah, and I think often it’s the simplest things that get underestimated simply because they are so simple. But I always love to encourage this with people because I’ve seen a huge difference in my sleep and my energy levels when I started making this a reliable habit. So my advice from a personal standpoint, with my own experience, is that I set sort of guidelines for myself, where before I am on a screen in the morning, I make sure I go out in the sunlight, even if it’s a cloudy day. You’re getting so much more light outside. Not through a window, not through glasses or sunglasses. Just outside.

And so I try to also not drink coffee until about at least 90 minutes after I wake up and I try to drink at least 32oz of water with minerals before I drink coffee. And just those little habits have made such a huge difference in my energy levels. And so I always encourage that, I’m like this is free, we can all do this, it doesn’t cost anything. Same thing with midday sunlight. To your point that bright light is so important for letting the body know that it’s daytime. That’s the time when our hormones are supposed to respond to being awake and alert and during the day and moving.

I think often the bright sunlight gets discounted because for a while we’ve had this fear of the sun, which, though it’s controversial, I definitely don’t think that we need to be afraid of the sun. I know I feel drastically better when I get bright sunlight as well. Doesn’t have to be for a long period of time, but we know that the sunlight that bright midday light stimulates our mitochondria to function more optimally. It can be really good for the thyroid. And then, like you said, that starts also, both of those exposures start our clock for sleep. And so getting good sleep actually, I think starts when we wake up, not when we start our bedtime routine. And I think those little shifts can make a huge difference.

And then to your point, avoiding those types of lights so the body doesn’t think it’s afternoon when it’s after sunset even I’ve talked about this before, but I have red light bulbs and lamps in my house. And after sunset, we turn off the big lights and we turn on the red lights, which are not like so dark we can’t see, but they’re red spectrum, there’s not blue light. And that really, as a parent, tends to help calm everybody in the whole house, which is great for bedtime.

Alex: Definitely, absolutely. Two things are very important when dimming the lights. One is avoiding blue light whenever possible, of course, and the other is dimming the lights to as little as possible. So keeping it to a level where it’s obviously not dangerous for you to walk around. So there should be enough light, but at the same time just keeping it low. So these two are essential.

Obviously, there is a big topic, especially in children, about smartphones, electronic devices, TVs, etc, basically digital screens. And here it’s not only about the light and the brightness, it’s also about the fact that when you’re in social media, when you’re doing something that is actively stimulating, especially video games, for example, it has an alerting effect as well. So it keeps you awake. The light and the brightness of light, as well as what you’re actually doing can really have an impact. And there were some fabulous studies done, for example, on even using e-tablets for reading a book, even though it emits light compared to a book that you read on paper, there has not been a very big difference in the way in how many minutes you need to fall asleep if you keep the light low. So it’s not also that much about having it an electronic device and emitting a little bit of lights, it’s also about what you’re actually doing.

So if you’re in social media, you’re actually obviously proactively many times, going through notifications, getting these dopamine kicks, and then you stay awake. And that’s why to wind down, there are a lot of things that you can do. One is obviously light, avoiding food a couple of hours before going to bed, but also finding your wind down routine that works for you, that could be reading a book, taking a shower, anything. Avoiding conflicts, avoiding thinking about work, etc. So you want to get your mind to a state where you can actually fall asleep easier.

Katie: That’s great to know because that was going to be one of my questions was about Kindle and I always try to encourage my kids to read and we try to have a rule that all the phones and tablets go in the kitchen to charge at night. So they’re all centralized, not in bedrooms. But I’ve always been okay with them having books or even their Kindle in their room and if they’re not tired, I’ll tell them stay up and read as long as you want, especially on days where they can get enough sleep in the morning. That’s great to know that that’s probably not having a huge impact on their sleep quality. As long as it’s not social media or something that’s very stimulating to the brain, which makes sense, I would guess people listening have probably had that experience where they were on social media where it’s just constant dopamine hits and you’re getting new information and notifications and then you have to kind of sort of detox your brain from that before you can sleep. Whereas I feel like books can actually help you calm the mind and get into a better sleep pattern at that point.

You also mentioned not eating food a couple of hours before bedtime and I would love to talk more about this because I think food is also an underestimated trigger when it comes to Circadian Biology. And just on a personal level, I’ve noticed for instance, if I sort of try to front load my food toward the earlier part of the day, get lots of protein and nutrients early and then taper-off by sunset, I tend to have more deep sleep show up in my sleep scores. Which kind of makes sense from just the fact that the liver is very active at night and it doesn’t have to take resources from digestion to do all the things that happen during sleep. But what are some good guidelines for how long before sleep is optimal? Is there any type of timing of macros or food or nutrients that are better at night versus in the morning? And what do you suggest there?

Alex: Yeah, great question. I mean, you said it more or less as it should be. Basically you aim to get a great breakfast so that you can kick start your day and then with the day progressing, you might want to decrease the quantity or the volume of food that you’re getting especially closer to bedtime so that you can allow time for your body to process it and to get ready for bed. One calorie in the morning. In many ways it’s not the same as one calorie in the evening because your metabolism slows down in the evening. So you need more time potentially to process the food and then you want to sleep.

So your body, for example, tells you that it’s time to fall asleep, but then your liver. Because one thing that we didn’t talk about is that it’s not just one clock that we have. We have a lot of clocks, almost every organ has a clock. So the master clock is in the brain and it’s most impacted by light. So it’s the kind of the orchestra and the clock that is directing all the others. So for example, we are getting close to bedtime and then we are feeding ourselves. The liver clock is saying well I need time to process this, but the master clock is saying well we are going to bed, so metabolism goes down, etc, and it can lead to problems there. So that’s why typically you’d want at least 2 to 3 hours before going to bed to stop eating if you can just drink water. If you really are hungry, if you are still getting into this fasting mode, you might want to get some snacks which are maybe sleep promoting those that might have some quantity of melatonin in them for example, or promoting melatonin, you can see them on the web.

You’d want to get some small snacks that are nutritious, that are not obviously junk food which you want to avoid. High sugary food might not be also a good option. So just healthy food that is a time in some way, but at the same time it’s not making really full so that you need time to process.

Katie: That’s great to know. And some tips I found is that another podcast guest explains certain foods actually help promote natural melatonin production. One of those he listed was pistachios, which, I didn’t know this, but they contain a small amount of melatonin. But it seems they don’t increase your melatonin when you eat them, they increase your melatonin when your body is naturally ready to produce melatonin at night. So that eating pistachios during the day can actually help promote restful sleep. And so I’ve been experimenting with at nighttime I try not to eat after sunset, but I will sometimes do a little bit of pistachios, a little bit of honey and a little bit of sea salt which that combination for me personally seems to lead to good sleep. That’s just a tip.

And my kids like to do honey salt. My theory is that maybe that little bit of sugar in the honey actually helps with glycogen stability throughout the night. And since we know the liver is very active during sleep, seems like there might be an element of supporting that but just an anecdotal sleep tip that works with my kids.

Alex: Yeah, I’m also not an expert there, but I’ve also seen that pistachios definitely are a great option. Maybe some snack of a handful of nuts could be also something that is going to keep you full, but at the same time obviously you don’t need a lot of time process it. Fruits such as berries might be also a good option because they’re very light, low calorie. Ideally you just want to avoid food. But if you need to, these are some good options.

Katie: Makes sense.

Alex: One thing, maybe we can talk about that a little bit later, but it’s about chronotypes and what you want to achieve actually, because some people are morning persons, others are evening persons and then you have some which are balanced in the middle. And if you’re an evening person or you want to adapt to a new time zone, for example, then when you eat obviously plays a bigger role and we might also talk about that as well. So just a side note that this rule of 2 to 3 hours before going to bed might not be fully applicable in most cases, in all cases.

Katie: Got it. And I do definitely want to get into chronotypes. Before we jump to that though, we also talked about temperature as a potential needle mover for good sleep. So I would love to just touch on temperature and how someone can use that to their advantage to improve sleep and to improve focus and wakefulness during the day.

Alex: Yeah. So one thing that we want to bring across, it’s called Minimum Core Body Temperature. So it occurs typically 2 to 3 hours before our nature wake up time. This is the lowest point of temperature that we have throughout the day. If you expose yourself to light before this point, you delay your rhythm, meaning that you start to wake up and go to bed later. If you get light after this point, let’s say in the morning, you kind of advance your rhythm. So that’s why the minimum for body temperature is important. If we link this to how we actually warm up or cool down, if you are having a cold shower in the morning, this promotes alertness. Because with a cold shower, even though it sounds controversial, with cold shower you actually increase your core body temperature. We want to have higher core body temperature during the day to be active. That is why if you’re exercising very close to going to bed, your core body temperature increases, but you want to actually cool down. So therefore, exercising just before going to bed might not be the best idea. You might want to exercise a couple of hours before so that you allow your body to cool down, decrease the core body temperature. And that is why in the evening you might want to get a warm shower because with the warm shower, the after effect is that you start to decrease your minimum core body temperature and helping you promote sleep.

Katie: That makes sense. Okay, and you mentioned the word chronotypes and I would love to delve into these. I’m also curious as part of this conversation, if our chronotype can sort of shift at different phases of life or when we implement some of these habits. For instance, I always thought I was a night owl and I always thought I did my best work at night and I was not a morning person. And when I started really getting morning sunlight and integrating these things we’re talking about, I’ve discovered that I’m now naturally waking up around the time the sun wakes up and I’m wide awake. And so I would call myself almost a morning person now, which I never thought I would do. So I’m curious, walk us through the chronotypes and if they can shift depending on our habits or depending on our phase of life.

Alex: Yes, of course. So the chronotype is a nature inclination towards being more active in the morning, in the evening or somewhere in the middle. So there are different types to classify them. Some classify them as dolphins, lions, etc. We typically use a more simpler term which is morning person, evening person and a balance, someone who is in the middle. Roughly we are typically one third of the population is a morning person, one third are evening and one third are balanced.

And it does as you mentioned, it changes throughout life. So if you’re a teenager, late teens, adolescents, early 20s, your tendency goes towards being an evening person. Then adults 25 to 65, we tend to be a bit more advanced but not as much as when we are senior. So when we are elderly we tend to be a bit more morning persons and that’s why many elderly, they look for ways to actually stay awake longer and go to bed later because they tend to go to bed very early.

Another reason though why late teens and teenagers in general, adolescents, why they shift their rhythm and delay their rhythm in general is because obviously the social life electronic device and everything else that might have happened with you as well, that you’ve actually been a night owl. One of the reasons because of that, you’ve been very probably social active during these years. And then now being a mother and yeah, I see that with myself as well. Being a father, you kind of advance your rhythm because you start waking up with your baby, you start to get the morning light, and then you shift your rhythm. Although naturally you might have been actually more of a balanced person rather than an evening person.

Katie: That makes sense as well. And I will say as a mom I’ve noticed that even at the young infant stage, if you also can get your babies lined up with these light patterns, it seems to help their sleep adapt more quickly. I also always try to remind moms anytime we talk about sleep, I think moms can get frustrated because those early years are difficult for sleep, just objectively tough.

But it does seem like we get some helpful hormones that help us actually be able to deal with interrupted sleep more easily when we have a newborn. But my tip is always try to integrate these habits also from a young age with your kids so they get a solid sleep foundation. And you also mentioned teenagers. It does seem like even if kids are pretty careful about avoiding screens and they’re not on social media at night, it does seem like least I noticed it in me. And now my own teenagers. There’s a phase where we tend to be more night owl like and want to sleep later. And I’ve heard sleep experts before say if possible, lean into that, let these kids stay up and read at night, let them sleep late if possible, because there is a phase where they sort of naturally more move toward that and it eventually will pass as they get older. But it seems like maybe teenagers waking up at 5:00 A.M. to go to school is tough on just where their phase of life is. And it’s one reason I’m glad to homeschool is because I can let my teenagers sleep till nine and then do their school versus having to get up early. I know that’s not available to everyone, but if possible it seems like rather than wake them up super early, the rule of my house is you never wake a sleeping baby and you never wake a sleeping teenager.

Alex: Definitely. Well said. It’s crucial for teenagers to get the sleep that they need and sadly it’s a hot topic nowadays. I think a lot of schools and even states are looking into delaying the school time. I think California, they even approved it to start 8:00 A.M.. The earliest I remember when I was in high school I was going to the other side of the city with public transport. I’ll wake up 5:30. There is no way for me that I’m awake at that time. I’m a zombie. Because we go to bed later, wake up later. So typically maybe around 10, 10ish 11. We are at our peak, morning peak. So the hours before we are not there yet. So definitely.

We work for example with a lot of basketball teams and for them to perform better in the morning, they use the device so they can get some light. If you’re able to wake up and get some light before going to school, this will definitely help you. If there is a possibility for your teenager to kind of go to bed earlier, it’s going to help them, but it’s a bit difficult to do unless you use the tools that we mentioned here with early, waking up, going to get some light, maybe exercising as well and eating. So the best combo I think is get up, get some light outside. If you can exercise, even you can combine the two, get light while you’re exercising outside and then come back and have a decent breakfast. This is the best way to kickstart your Circadian Rhythm.

Katie: And let’s talk about the device a little bit because we haven’t mentioned that yet, but I know that from your research in this you’ve been involved with this device that actually helps some of these things we’re talking about, especially if you’re not able to just have this perfect pattern of morning sunlight and all these other things. So can you walk through what led to the creation of it and what it is doing when it comes to Circadian Biology?

Alex: Yeah, so we came up with the idea during our masters with my co-founder. He was the kind of the visionary who came up with the idea. We are both from sunnier countries, even in winter we get decent amount of sun but in the Netherlands we experienced the short winter days that could be quite gloomy as well. We got into the field of light. We tried some products on the market which were at that time just light therapy boxes, and we decided this is a great tool to help you get the morning light, get the daily light. If there is not enough outside, even if you want because if it’s raining, even if you want to, you’re not really able to get the light that you need.

So we decided to create a wearable device that you can actually carry with you. Use it in a very easy and convenient way. It emits blue light which we mentioned is the most powerful for suppressing melatonin and adjusting the Circadian Rhythm. So that’s the wearable. And we have also an element which is the app as well that is focused on circadian health. So it’s giving you all the guidance that you need that we mentioned here. So first you create, you fill in a questionnaire, you get your chronotype based on your chronotype, on your goal, whether this is waking up for example, at six, but currently you’re waking up at seven. It gives you guidance on when to use the device, guidance in terms of light exposure, meal times, exercise times, etc. Ideally you’ll be able to get the sunlight. If you’re not, the second best is using light therapy or product like ours and we’ve seen that in our experiences.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people are not able to go out and get the morning light as you and we are able to do. And they need a tool like this. So our mission is to help people understand and improve their Circadian Rhythm, understand that they have something called the Circadian Rhythm and how they can take charge of it. And we provide them with a tool which is the wearable, giving you the light and the knowledge which is the application and giving you the guidance and recommendations.

Katie: So this is basically, like you said, taking the place of something like a light box and is also portable. Is this something that back to the conversation of teenagers that they could take with them to school in the morning or on the commute to school, things like that to help their brains get more awake and alert?

Alex: Yeah, exactly. So if they’re unable to get the morning light. The second best, as I said, is to get this light therapy, use light therapy, use a wake up light. But we’ve seen that we tell you it’s just so much easier than any lamp or a light therapy box because you just pop it up on your face and then you’re ready to go. You can make breakfast, you can prepare for leaving or you can even use it while commuting, not driving, but in the bus or in the car while someone else is driving. So that’s something that can really help. And of course during the day you’d want to be engaged with other of the techniques that we mentioned here to further support your Circadian Rhythm. One thing I want to mention is that obviously the more you do of these the better. But start from somewhere, see what works and then try to expand from there. And if you skip one day it’s not a problem. Our bodies love consistency, but if nothing’s going to happen, if you don’t do it one day you don’t get the light or you don’t eat at the proper times, we are quite resilient but the more you do and the more consistent you are, the better effect you’ll have.

Katie: Yeah, that’s a great point. When it comes to the balance aspect of that, I always try to think of, I think Molly McGlocklin uses the term like social capital and that there are times where I’m willing to deviate from this. Like most days I want to choose all the good inputs but if there’s like a late night gathering with friends where I’m going to have great social connection, we know community is very important. I’m willing to sacrifice optimal light exposure, optimal food timing, all those things even sometimes a glass of wine to have that social connection. But most days I’m going to choose the good inputs. And I have learned over time, I think our stress and guilt about not doing things perfectly can be much more damaging than not doing things perfectly. So in those cases I feel like choosing connection over perfection some days is actually a very healthy mental choice.

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I’d also love to talk about these factors in relation to a couple of special use-cases that won’t necessarily apply to everyone listening, but I know will very directly apply to a few people listening, the first being things like shift work. I hear from a decent amount of readers and listeners who do some form of shift work and I know this is a difficult case to manage in general because we know that our bodies, like we’ve talked about, are meant to line up with the natural light cycles of the earth, but there are times that they don’t. And I’m very grateful for the people who work all night so that we can have medical care throughout the night. But these people probably have some special considerations when it comes to their Circadian Biology. So can you talk about, first of all, shift workers and how they can use these same things we’ve talked about to optimize their Circadian Biology within the constraints of shift work?

Alex: Definitely. As you said, shift work is essential. Around 20% of the population is involved in some sort of shift work. Shift work is probably the most challenging case to keep your biological clock in sync just because of the frequency of night shift. It really depends obviously, on the type of shift work that you have. Some are easier to tackle rather than others. I was also involved in shift work in Alaska. We used to work six and a half hours every day. The good thing was that it was consistent. So it was the same amount of hours, same time.

But a few years before, when I was 17, I was working in a supermarket and there was the shift of two to two, which is very typical. So two days day shift, two days night shift, two days resting days, which although it might seems like a good balance, it really destroys your Circadian Rhythm because the change is so frequent and so quickly that it’s very difficult to actually adapt. So in these cases, if we have two to two, we give guidance on alertness, for example, trying to help them understand and typically keep their rhythm more in line with their resting days and day shifts rather than the night shift. But in an ideal world, you don’t want to talk to your employer if you’re really in these frequent shift works, if you can do something about it, if you have like a week or two with one shift, even if it’s night shift, you have a good chance to align your rhythm with the night shift.

So what you’re going to do is before the night shift, just everything that we talked about but in reverse. What that means before your night shift, especially if you are lucky enough to sleep a good amount of hours before starting the night shift, you’d wake up, you would try to get light. Ideally that would be from maybe the sunlight. Now in summer it’s a bit easier if you can get light therapy or just try to turn on the lights, although light therapy would be more powerful so you can really help your body wake up. The same goes for food, the same goes for exercise. So you can try to do these things before your night shift so that you can stay more active.

Then during the night shift we in many times also recommend doing another session if you start to feel sleepy. And then the other aspect is after the night shift, on your way home or when you get home, you want to avoid food, obviously a couple of hours before that before going to bed. Also try to dim the lights, especially if when you go out there is already daylight. So you want to use sunglasses for example, something to dim the lights as much as possible. And when you go and try to sleep during the day, you try to ensure a cool, dark and quiet environment. Use earplugs, anything that can really isolate you so that you can try to get some rest.

And when we have like 7, 14 days or at least a few days, you are able to get your body a bit to the stage of aligning to the night shift. But unfortunately, the harsh reality is that around 97% of all night shift workers are actually sticking to their day shifts because we’re just not made for such a night shift. So it’s very difficult for us to cope for night shift, obviously night hours, it might be easier for them to stay awake during the night shift and kind of adapt easier. Same goes for if you are having a very early day shift which starts early for morning larks, it might be easier for them to kind of cope with that and wake up earlier. But the goal here is to play with these factors.

So light, exercise and food and temperature as well and just try to utilize them in your benefit and just try to talk to your employer to see what’s possible to make the change not as dynamic if possible, so that you can really support your rhythm.

Katie: Got it. And another time, that is usually not a consistent thing that happens, but one that definitely does shift our Circadian Rhythms is jet lag. And I have a little bit of travel planned this year that will involve some pretty substantial jet lag and I know many people listening, I’m sure have had an experience with jet lag as well. So are there any things we can do pre-international flights or big shifts in time zones or during or after to help minimize the stress on the body from jet lag?

Alex: Yeah, exactly. So the good thing with jet lag is that as you said, it’s not very frequent for most people. Of course there are a lot of frequent travelers, executives, etc. But for most, if you’re going on a summer vacation, you can start adopting these techniques already before your trip so that you can be kind of halfway there, almost fully adapted once you get there. So for example, if you’re traveling from East Coast to London, you would want to have everything in advance. So in the sense that you’d want to get the morning light earlier in the morning, exercise early in the morning, so kind of advance your rhythm. The general rule of thumb is that if you’re flying east, you want to advance your rhythm if you’re flying west. So from London, going back to the US. You’d want to delay your rhythm, meaning that you’d want to get the light in the evening. So that’s the example that we mentioned that you might want to eat later in the day, exercise later in the day so that you can stay awake longer and push your rhythm so you’re able to fall asleep at the right time.

And you can actually start the adaptation process already before, as I said. So a couple of days before your trip, you can already start waking up maybe half an hour, 1 hour earlier, get the light at that time, and you do that for a few consecutive days, your body is going to start adapting then when you’re traveling. So in the plane itself, you’d want to think, what is happening now at the local time? Is it time for me to eat? Probably it’s not. If you’re having an overnight flight, which is from, let’s say, East Coast to London, as you’re mentioning, you might want to stop eating before the flight or earlier in the flight, and then just try to get some sleep so that when you land and it’s, I don’t know, morning that you can have then a proper meal, get the light, etc.

Another thing is when we’re flying east, especially if we cross a few more time zones in the first couple of hours, typically in the morning, we would want to avoid light, so we would want to use sunglasses, maybe stay indoors and then get the bright light because it’s still daylight, it’s still night. So we want to adapt. And typically when we have our clients or customers going through long haul travel, they reach out to us. We’re happy to provide more personal guidance. The same goes for shift work as much as we can, we are happy to help. And we’ve seen that adapting earlier, before the trip is actually something that is quite beneficial because when you land it, especially if it’s several hours of difference, you need several days to adapt. So you want to save that and just enjoy your vacation.

Katie: Those are great tips. I’m curious, your thoughts on melatonin. I never supplement with Melatonin unless I’m traveling internationally. And similar to what you just said, my thought is always to try to slowly adapt my sleep timing a little bit the few days before. But then I love trying to book flights somewhere in the 3:00 to 5:00 P.M. range. And then I’ll take melatonin usually on the flight, put on a sleep mask, put on noise canceling headphones, and try to sleep the whole flight rather than eat. And then as soon as I get there, it’s usually morning time. Then I try to do those things you said, get bright light exposure, eat something, and also get outside on the ground as quickly as I can. But it seems like the device is actually another way to speed up that because you can put that on as soon as you land in the airport. You don’t even have to wait till you can get to the sunlight. But what are your thoughts on melatonin with international travel especially?

Alex: Yeah, we know that a lot of people use it. Typically Ayo is having a more natural effect in the sense that it’s providing you the light that is needed for suppressing melatonin. But when you need to actually produce melatonin, we know that it’s more challenging. We know that a lot of people are using it. There are not that many side effects with melatonin as far as I know. But the challenge is that you would want to make sure that you’re getting the right dosage, which is quite challenging because we don’t have a way to ensure that. So just the way you’re sourcing it, it should be from, I guess, good source so that you can be sure about that.

Katie: Gotcha. And to shift gears a little bit, I would also love to talk about any tips for optimizing the sleep environment because we touched on these a little bit in the idea of temperature being important, of light exposure at night being a negative thing. I have gone to, over the years, really refined my sleep environment and kind of gone to extreme lengths realizing we spend roughly a third of our life sleeping. So I try to put a lot of priority toward my sleep environment. Do you have any tips specific to creating a good sleep environment for us, for our kids, that can help lead to better sleep quality?

Alex: Yeah, well, I think that if you’re looking exactly at the sleep environment, the main ones are cool, quiet, making sure that you don’t get light, easier to remove the electronic devices. So your brain is quiet, you know that this is your space for you. And outside of that, obviously, light exposure is very important. We talked about that.

I think the main one is really finding your wind down routine that works for you because that plays a major role. You want to go in bed and be ready to sleep. You don’t want to crash because this would mean that you’re exhausted and then you’re maybe sleep deprived, etc. So normally it takes up to, I think, 20 minutes to fall asleep and this is normal range, but you don’t want to go there and not be ready to fall asleep. So the goal is to wind down, find the thing that works for you. For me, that is typically breathing or even listening to something that is monotonous and helps me get into this state. Other things are, for example, pets, unfortunately are not typically helping you promote sleep because of many reasons, even you just want to make sure that the sleep environment is such that you don’t wake up that often. You might be careful with liquids as well, so you might stop drinking any liquids sometime before bed, depending, of course, on the season, if it’s too warm, etc. But in general, you don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet. So that’s one, we talked about food. So these are typically the main ones. There are also some supplements as well that you can potentially try. Magnesium is probably the one that has been mostly recommended by experts, sort of different ones. I think these are probably the main factors.

Katie: Awesome. I’ve been making notes for the show notes and I agree with everything you’re saying. Magnesium is also, I think, one that almost universally people can benefit from. Just talked about this before, but our soil is much more depleted of magnesium than it used to be. It’s hard to get enough from food. Even people like Chris Kresser, who in the past have been very anti-supplement, now says this is one that we just simply cannot get enough from food anymore. And it’s one that seems to be very impactful for sleep. And I feel like this whole episode has been very applicable and practical tips for improving sleep quality.

And I’ll, of course, also make sure I link to the device in the show notes for people who want a much more convenient way to get that light exposure in the morning, especially on the go. But there’s a few questions I love to ask toward the end of interviews. The first being if there is a book or number of books that have profoundly impacted your life and if so, what they are and why.

Alex: Yeah, there are definitely many books and many things that have impacted my life. The one that I can think of is probably Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning because it’s just so deep, profound and it really tries really hard to help you understand what’s your why in a way that it’s easy to understand. I think that we as people having a why is so impactful in the sense that we can just dedicate our lives in something that could be meaningful. So it’s something that has had a big impact on me.

Katie: I certainly second that recommendation that’s one of my early in the year reads rereads because it just really, I feel like put so many things in perspective and really is impactful for mindset so it’s one I love to recommend as well. I’ll link to that in the show notes for you guys listening. All of that will be @wellnessmama.fm. And lastly, any parting advice for the listeners today that could be related to sleep and Circadian Biology as we’ve been talking about or entirely unrelated life advice that you have found valuable.

Alex: As I said, my mission currently in life is really to help people understand that they have something which is called a Circadian Rhythm and it’s an internal mechanism that we have power to control but we just need to understand how. And it’s something that I believe it’s going to have much bigger importance in the years to come because we are understanding more and more of it. So we know a lot about it but we are still at the beginning of how it actually works in cases such as take medicines, for example, supplements, when is the best time for us in terms of Chronotypes? So basically it can really affect an effect of, for example, a drug when we’re taking a drug for cardiovascular disease or for cancer, going through chemotherapy, et cetera, it can have a profound effect, the timing of the day or night. So as an advice, I can just share, think about your Circadian Rhythm, make sure that you always keep it at the back of your mind and try to really live in sync with it because it can help you live better, healthier and longer.

Katie: Great advice. And I know that you have resources also on your website as well as the device itself, so I’ll make sure that’s linked. You guys check it out. That is all at wellnessmama.fm. Like I said. And Alex, this has been such a fun conversation. I think the importance of sleep cannot be overstated, especially in today’s world. We know we’re not getting quality sleep and I really appreciate you providing all these super applicable tips to help us all improve our sleep, even at the phases of life where that’s naturally tougher, like motherhood, like shift work, like having teenagers. So I’m very grateful for your time today. Thank you so much for being here.

Alex: It’s my pleasure, Katie. I appreciate the invitation and I really hope that it’s been helpful to the audience.

Katie: And thanks to all of you, as always, for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of The Wellness Mama Podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.



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