In case you don't know, your body has an internal clock that's always ticking, and it plays a role in regulating pretty much everything, from hormones, to hunger, and even your moods and your mental health. Your body's internal clock (aka your circadian rhythm) ensures things are running as smoothly as possible, and one way you can help that process along is by maintaining a regular sleep schedule. Now, if you've never considered just how much lack of sleep affects your mental health, a new study sheds some light on that very subject, and it has a whole lot to do with the status of that internal clock ticking away inside your body.
Before we get into the details of the new research, let's talk about what a circadian rhythm actually is, and what it really does inside your body all day long. According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), "circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle," and they respond to sources of light and darkness in your immediate environment. And while your body's biological clock is technically different and separate from your circadian rhythm, NIGMS explains that the two are related, as "biological clocks produce circadian rhythms and regulate their timing."
And, as The National Sleep Foundation explains, although body clocks are truly unique to each person, generally speaking, your circadian rhythm tends to coincide with the cycle of daytime and nighttime:
A part of your hypothalamus (a portion of your brain) controls your circadian rhythm. That said, outside factors like lightness and darkness can also impact it. When it’s dark at night, your eyes send a signal to the hypothalamus that it’s time to feel tired. Your brain, in turn, sends a signal to your body to release melatonin, which makes your body tired.
Your circadian rhythm plays a huge role in your physical health, but according to new research, if you're not taking care of your body's clock with a good sleep schedule, your mental health could be seriously affected, too.
The new study, which has been published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry, essentially found that, if your circadian rhythm is interrupted, it can increase your risk of depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders, as well as significantly worsen the symptoms of any mood-related conditions that you've already been diagnosed with. In other words, the effects of a bad sleep schedule can be much bigger than a few groggy, cranky mornings here and there.
The study, which was done by researchers from the University of Glasgow, looked at over 90,000 participants in the UK, who all wore special devices to monitor their activity for one week, in order to see the levels of disruption in their bodies' clocks over time. According to Business Insider, "disruptions" were considered to be anything particularly active during late hours of the night, or on the flip side, anything especially inactive during the daytime hours. The research found that those with more body-clock disruptions were about 6 to 10 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with a mood disorder than those who had a more regular circadian rhythm (i.e. they were more active during the day, and less active at night).
What's more, Business Insider reports, a disruption in circadian rhythm was also found to be associated with general reports of "lower well-being, higher neuroticism, increased loneliness, less happiness and health satisfaction, more mood swings, and a slower reaction time." Keep in mind, Laura Lyall, the lead author of this study, told Business Insider this does not necessarily mean a disrupted circadian rhythm automatically causes mental health issues. Still, she told the news outlet, it's worth noting that this is the largest study of its kind "to identify an association between disrupted body clocks and mood disorders," meaning it's worth taking these results pretty seriously, though more research is needed to fully flesh out the findings.
For now, if you're worried about taking care of your own body's internal clock, there are some simple ways to keep your sleep habits regular, and in turn, keep your circadian rhythm happy, too.
For instance, Dr. Joseph Krainin, a sleep medicine and neurology specialist and founder of Singular Sleep, tells Elite Daily one of the most important ways to maintain a solid sleep schedule (and in turn, a good circadian rhythm) is to make sure you aren't sacrificing sleep for anything. "Your quality of life and work performance will be better if you get the sleep that your body needs," he explains. "If you have the tendency to get lost in your work or other activities at the expense of your sleep, set a reminder on your phone or smartwatch to go to bed."
Additionally, Dr. Krainin suggests getting yourself accustomed to a stable and relaxing bedtime routine, which will help ensure you're heading to bed at the same time every night, and keeping that internal clock ticking happily away.
And remember, there's no shame whatsoever in reaching out to a professional for help with either your sleep schedule or your mental health — or both! Whatever it takes to maintain a healthy well-being, is totally worth the time and effort.