Michael Howell, MD, specializes in neurology and sleep medicine with University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians). As the seasons change, and the days become shorter, Dr. Howell explains that it’s common for individuals to struggle with waking up in the morning and falling asleep at night. He aims to give patients an understanding of the importance and value of their sleep.
“The most important thing about sleep is to first help someone understand what their natural circadian rhythm is,” Dr. Howell said. “That's your body's 24-hour clock. It is the most important part of your physiology that you probably never think about.”
Dr. Howell shared that an individual’s circadian rhythm can be used to predict more than just when they’re going to be awake and when they will fall asleep.
“Your circadian rhythm predicts when you’re going to get drowsy in the afternoon and when you're going to get hungry,” Dr. Howell said. “It indicates when you're best at concentrating in class, being creative and your athletic performance. It impacts when you're going to be gregarious and outgoing and when you're going to be kind of quiet and passive.”
A critical component to the body’s circadian rhythm is daytime light exposure. When individuals begin spending less time outside in the sun, this disrupts their circadian rhythm. This disruption forces the body to process this change and adjust. Dr. Howell has seen these big changes lend themselves to longer-lasting side effects, such as seasonal depression.
“Patients often need more bright light therapy,” Dr. Howell said. “When the sun is not available, a bright 10,000 lux lightbox, often referred to as ‘sad lamps’, can be helpful, particularly first thing in the morning.”
Dr. Howell also recommends that individuals who struggle to fall asleep should be more mindful of light exposure in the evening. He said that lights should be dimmed as bedtime nears because it helps prepare the body for rest.
Though there are several ways to provide medicinal solutions to sleep problems, Dr. Howell believes that spending time understanding your body is highly effective. Recently, he has been centering his research on the impact of sleep on athletic performance.
“What I love about sleep is that it's just so tangible, everybody sleeps,” Dr. Howell said. “Everyone at some point in their life has trouble sleeping or has a loved one who has trouble sleeping. It’s so common, yet most of those individuals don’t seek help. Nonetheless, everyone could benefit from sleeping better, and it’s possible. It’s a third of our lives and we're unconscious for it, so it must be incredibly important.”