Resetting the Circadian Rhythm: Achieving the impossible

It’s been close to 3 months since I posted this rant on how unsatisfying my lifestyle had become because of chronic procrastination. I also mentioned the 3 anchor points on fixing which I’ll bring my life back under my command.

Well, I’ve now fixed one of them and I’m feeling super good about it. My Sleep ūüôā

Okay, sleep is something we all take for granted, don’t we?

In fact — I know some friends of mine who brag on how little they sleep. For them, staying up late and gaming till late night is kind of like a gratifying achievement. Little do such people know how much harm they’re doing to themselves and their future prospects in nearly every aspect of their lives.

Anyway, when I embarked on this “fixing my sleep” mission, I had this feeling in the gut that I was never gonna succeed. I had long pending sleep debts (yes, that’s a real thing) and had some issues shitty addictions, including the epic DotA 2 gaming addiction. My schedule was fucked up and my sense of time was distorted.

Before I tell you how I got my shit together, let’s take a look at why sleep is super important.

Why do we Sleep?

Good question. Glad you asked.

Hundreds of researchers have studied this phenomenon in detail with the help of thousands of experiments over the course of the last 100 years. And, things got really up close and personal when MRI and PET scanners entered the medical field ~ 50 years ago. Researchers now had tools to zoom right into the brain at rest.

Now, why do we sleep. As many of you might already be knowing, sleep acts as a restorative process, both physically and mentally. A night’s sleep consists of mainly of these two phases:

  1. REM (Rapid eye movement) sleep.
  2. Non-REM (Deep) sleep.

REM sleep essentially acts as a restorative mechanism for our mind and brain. During REM sleep, our mind organizes and structures the information that was learnt during the day (like a geography lesson/a topic in math) and connects it with the¬†things it already knows, thereby forming a knowledge graph of information and making sense of the big picture. Dreams occur during this phase of sleep and REM typically occurs in bursts. You can tell by looking at a person’s eyes whether he’s in REM sleep or in Deep sleep (or is pretending to be sleeping :p). This is also called shallow sleep and the person can be awakened easily.

Non-REM sleep (Deep sleep) is a little different from REM sleep as it acts as a restorative mechanism for the physical body as a whole. It’s during this phase of sleep that you’re broken tissue gets fixed and your broken arm receives an extra bit of bone marrow :p. In this phase of sleep, a person’s body temperature and breathing rate falls to an absolute low and it’s the deepest phase of sleep and a person is not awakened easily.

As you can see, sleep is critical because it’s like a pit stop for your body. And now you’ll learn how your shitty habits narrow down the already narrow pit stop time.

(I’ve tried to explain everything as simply as possible. There’s more to it than the stuff I mentioned, be sure to check the citations out!)

What affects Sleep?

Now that you know why we sleep, it’s good to proceed over to know what affects it.

So, WHAT THE FUCK AFFECTS IT?

I want you to take a look at the heading of this article once again. Yes, done?

It’s the Circadian Rhythm, yeah these two weird sounding words.

According to Wikipedia, Circadian Rhythm is defined as:

Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment.

It’s also called sleep cycle/body clock/<insert relatable synonym>

Now, you can go ahead and read the entire article on Circadian Rhythm elsewhere on the web (I’ll also add links in the citations), but critical thing to know is that Circadian Rhythm works on the basis one core input, Natural Light.

Now, to understand this, let’s take a step back and go to 50,000 BC, where our Great*2000¬†grandpa used to hang out in the WILD African Savannah. For them, nothing mattered more than hunting, eating, sleeping, taking a dump and mating. Simple lifestyle. No big fuss. So, their Circadian Rhythm was rock solidly fixed onto a 12 hour sleep and 12 hour take cycle, determined by the availability of the ever natural Sunlight.

Whenever sun rose up in the morning, it was a¬†signal for their primitive brains to get up and get started with their day and when sun used to go down during the dusk, it was a¬†signal wind up and relax, mate probably and ultimately falling to sleep…and this cycle continued again and again for the next 40,000 years.

Something funny has happened in the past 10,000 years. We transformed¬†from hunter gatherers to food cultivators. And soon, industrialization followed in the 18th/19th century. Cities rose up from dry barren lands. Light bulb was invented. Telephone was invented. TeleVision was invented. Airplane was invented and finally, after two bloody World Wars and the dreaded Cold war, THE INTERNET WENT MAINSTREAM IN THE 90’s. (…phew…finally I connected the dots.)

You may wonder what the absolute fuck has the above got anything to do with the sleep cycle? Turns out, there is something, very deep…

So, with the internet and TV and light bulbs producing artificial light (often termed as light pollution), our primitive brains got super confused. Our internal body clocks were like:

*7 P.M.*: “Okay, sun’s down, time to wind up”

*Typical douchebag fires up the iPad with full brightness to watch Yo Yo*: “Oh wait, it’s daytime again, got to wake the body up”

*After about 7 hours, 2 A.M.*: “Something’s amiss, sun’s still up, WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?!?”

As you can see, our incessant gadget use has wrecked our natural Circadian Rhythm and has super confused our primitive brains. Just to remind you, our brains are still 99% wired similar to that of our ancient hunter gathering ancestors, only our prefrontal cortex has developed to accommodate our modern day tasks like solving math problems, programming in Java etc. Rest everything is still as wild as 50,000 years back. Think about it.

Back to the present!

As you can see, when I embarked on resetting the Circadian Rhythm, I was locked on to battle with Evolution and my shitty habits of taking my phone to bed.

The first thing I had to do was introduce a policy into my being that’ll automatically ban all electronic gadgets after about 9 P.M. As you can probably guess, that policy was a disaster.

My body would simply not budge. My hands would simply not put the phone down. It’s hard to break a habit that’s been formed and has been strengthening for years. So, my next task was to identify what exactly was I glued to.

When I installed BreakFree on my device, after a week I was not surprised to find which apps were taking up most of my time:

Once I realized that I was in deep shit with regards to gadget use, I quickly took action. I quit (uninstalled) WhatsApp.

Then came BaconReader, Quora, Medium’s turn. (EverNote was kinda necessary.)

I then promised to myself to only use these services on my uber cool desktop PC, since I can’t drag my desktop down to my bed.

Problem fixed.

But…

I felt a huge void without my phone next to me in the bed. I then read this book. It was about forming and breaking habits and the power of neuroplasticity. I realized, in order to break a habit, you need to fill in the void left by that habit using a new, more productive habit.

Since, I was addicted to reading, I had to figure out a habit that’ll keep the reading part but would be without the backlight of a gadget. Answer was simple, good old books. I searched up the physical version of books that I’ve got on my Aldiko and ordered them off Amazon (ncie deals BTW). Then I began, every single day reading up books, ol’ fashioned way.

Life after RESET!

As I started doing this, my body soon fell into it’s natural sleep-wake cycle. I started hitting the bed as early as 10 P.M. (an achievement for someone who never used to sleep before 2 AM just weeks earlier.) and got up at around 5:30 AM. felt effortless. No more alarm clocks and similar shitty stuff.

Soon, I started to feel better. My mood was more stable, I was able to think better and most importantly, my attention span improved and I no longer got burned out easily.

Still, Sleep debt wise, I have a long way to go…That will probably take at least a couple of more months, but I’m on the right track.

Now that I’ve fixed one of the three anchor points, I can focus on the other two now and the other two are super interrelated, Eating and Working out…I’m coming for you guys… ūüėÄ

                                                                     ***************

So yeah, there you go, that’s how I reset my ¬†Circadian Rhythm and I hope I clarified any of your questions with regards to basic sleep. I’ve included a ton of hyperlinks in the citations section below, be sure to check them out.

And, I’ll be posting on Medium ¬†(I do have a problem with punctuality)¬†shortly, be sure to follow me @Abhishekist.

See you there

Cheers ūüėÄ

P.S – As always, the heading was an exaggeration. It’s not as impossible as I made it sound…all you need is some self discipline and motivation to get better at sleeping!!

Citations & References:

  1. http://jamesclear.com/better-sleep
  2. http://www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/how-to-sleep-better.htm
  3. https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-tools-tips/healthy-sleep-tips
  4. http://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/
  5. http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/getting/overcoming/tips
  6. https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/circadian-rhythm
  7. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/understanding_sleep.htm
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