If you have a hard time falling asleep and waking up when you need to, you might have what’s known as a circadian rhythm sleep disorder. Typically, your body clock regulates a regular daily rhythm of temperature and hormone levels that—combined with other factors like light exposure, meals, and exercise—tells you when it’s time to sleep at night and be awake during the day. Sometimes, however, the rhythms get off course, resulting in poor sleep and daytime drowsiness. There are a variety of these disorders—and if one sounds like it might be what you have, talk to your doctor.
Called DSP for short, this type of circadian rhythm is what’s experienced by “night owls” or those who tend to stay up until 1:00am or later. It’s most common in younger people or teenagers. Unfortunately, if your school or work schedule doesn’t allow you to sleep late enough to log enough zzz’s, this disorder is likely to leave you feeling as if you haven’t had enough sleep during the day.
The opposite of DSP, ASP is what’s experienced by extreme “early birds” who wake up between 2:00am and 5:00am. Going to bed early enough to get the right amount of sleep can help if you have this disorder, which becomes more common with age.
Sound familiar? Anyone can experience this type of temporary sleep disorder simply by traveling across two or more time zones. The more time zones you cross—especially if you’re going east—the more likely you are to have trouble sleeping.
This type of circadian rhythm disorder is common in people who work when they would naturally be sleeping—either late at night or very early in the morning. While you may not be able to change your work schedule, using props like eye masks and blackout blinds to block out light when it’s time to sleep and exposing yourself to bright light when it’s time to be awake can help you adjust your body’s clock.
People with this issue have sleep that is fragmented into naps that are spread over a 24-hour period rather than consolidated all at once at night. Symptoms can include chronic insomnia as well as sleepiness.
Depending on the type and severity of the circadian rhythm disorder that you suffer from, there are a variety of ways to treat it. Start by brushing up on good sleep hygiene by going to bed and waking at the same time every day, getting regular exercise, and avoiding exposure to screens and bright light before bedtime. Light therapy and medications such as melatonin, stimulants, or sleep aids can also be helpful in shifting your circadian rhythms. Ask your doctor for more information.