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Working from home and can’t sleep? WVU neuroscientist says your circadian rhythms are to blame

Picture of a home office space and a bed room.

Disruptions to the circadian rhythms that regulate the sleep-wake cycle may affect people working from home, according to WVU researcher Randy Nelson. (WVU Illustration/Aira Burkhart)

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While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to transition to working from home, some are finding it difficult to sleep. According to one West Virginia University neuroscientist, this problem is caused by disruptions to the circadian rhythms that regulate our sleep-wake cycle. 

Randy Nelson, director of the WVU Center for Foundational Neuroscience Research and Education, is an expert in neurological research and has studied how disruption to circadian rhythms affects metabolism, immunity and neuroinflammation.


“During the course of evolution, the temporal rhythm of our rotating planet was internalized in our bodies. Virtually, all organisms on the planet have self-sustaining, internal biological clocks. In humans, virtually every aspect of our physiology and behavior, ranging from sleep, to hormone secretion, to body temperature regulation, metabolism, and food intake, is mediated by our internal clocks.

“These internal rhythms synched to the solar days are called ‘circadian rhythms,’ and the biological clocks that generate circadian rhythms are called ‘circadian clocks.’ If individuals are left in constant conditions such as a dark cave, then the internal circadian rhythms emerge—and they are not exactly 24 hours—but about a day‑—or circadian in Latin. For example, if you were placed in a dimly-lit cave for several weeks, your sleep-wake cycle might be about 24 hours and 15 minutes, but not precisely 24 hours, as it would be above ground where the circadian clock is being reset daily by exposure to light. 

“Indeed, exposure to the bright sunlight during the day resets the circadian clocks to precisely 24 hours each day. However, exposure to artificial light at night can derail this system and cause havoc with the temporal coordination of physiology and behavior. 

“If the body functions as an orchestra, then the circadian clock can be considered to function as the conductor—keeping physiology appropriately timed for optimal health. If the light-dark cycle is shifted by several hours, such as when one travels across time zones one experiences a malaise termed jet lag.

“In addition to jet travel and nightly exposure to artificial light, a common way that we impair the function of our internal clocks is something called 'social jet lag'. Social jet lag is the phase delay in your internal clock and sleep that occurs when you stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights to socialize and then sleep in on the following days to catch up. Social jet lag is what often makes Monday mornings so miserable and can disrupt circadian rhythms as actual jet lag. Shifting from working at home to an office requires a shift in wake times because of the need for preparation and commuting. The key to good circadian hygiene is consistency in daily functioning. 

“Make your bedroom completely dark (during the day if you are working night shifts) and make your workspace bright during the day (or if on night shift)—in other words mimic the natural day-night cycles in your home and office. If possible, get 30-plus minutes of exposure to sunlight in the morning (take a walk or run). Use bright illumination during the day to mimic daylight and use black-out curtains, or a sleep mask at night. Ask your personal physician about whether she would recommend melatonin; melatonin helps align circadian rhythms in most folks when taken two hours before sleep onset.” – Randy Nelson, Director of the WVU Center for Foundational Neuroscience Research and Education.

West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise, or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.



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