Chronotherapy: Resetting Your Inner Clock to Boost Mood, Alertness, and Quality Sleep

Author: Michael Terman, PhD and Ian McMahan, PhD
Publisher: Penguin Group Book
Publication: 2012

If you have difficulty getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, you are not alone. Millions of people complain about sleep problems. While there are many factors that can contribute to the inability to get the proper amount of sleep, there is one at the heart of many common sleep issues that you may not be aware of – circadian timing or rhythms.

Sleep issues associated with circadian timing, or our human circadian clock, is the focus of a new book called Chronotherapy by Michael Terman, director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms, Columbia University Medical Center, and psychologist Ian McMahan. Traced to a tiny section of the brain, this “clock” is the neurological mechanism that is involved in guiding our pattern of sleeping and waking.

Most of us follow 24-hour cycles in our everyday lives. However, according to Terman and McMahan, many people’s built-in circadian cycles differ from this standard. “Maybe your clock is running too slowly…. You may be sleeping crazy hours that fall out of line with local time. You may not get enough natural light as the seasons turn, or as you dart from a dark home to a dark office.” This conflict between internal systems and what is required in our external environment can cause major sleep disruptions that affect our mood and productivity. Insomnia, depression, seasonal affective disorder, jet lag, shift work, adolescent sleep loss, and more can be linked to circadian timing gone awry. All these sleep-related concerns are discussed in detail in Chronotherapy.

The point which the authors most emphasize is that, in many cases, problems of sleep and mood are caused by environmental factors that can be controlled. Based on the scientific study of chronobiology, Chronotherapy lays out strategies, including timed light therapy, scheduled sleep timing, controlled doses of melatonin, negative air ions, structured exposure to darkness, and bedroom dawn and dusk simulation to help us achieve the kind of sleep our bodies need.

The main thrust behind this therapy involves restructuring the amount and pattern of daily light exposure in order to reset the circadian clock, bringing it back in sync with everyday demands. Chapter 7 – ‘Healing Light’ – provides a thorough explanation of bright light therapy including therapeutic guidelines for light box size, and proper light intensity, angle, colour, and diffusion.

Subsequent chapters cover sleeping medications and how they work, new insight into adding controlled doses of the natural sleep hormone melatonin to sessions of light therapy to achieve stronger total effect, and the exciting possibilities of treatment with high-density negative air ions to combat depression (think about the benefits of a day at the beach to understand the concept behind this therapy).

Part 4 of Chronotherapy offers detailed descriptions of how sleep issues manifest themselves at different stages of life: pregnancy, babies and children, adolescence, and old age. And in part 5, readers will find discussions of how chronotherapy can counteract the negative effects of jet lag and shift work. We also learn about the innovative ideas combining architecture and chronobiology to alter the home and work environments “to enhance sleep timing and quality, mood, alertness and energy.”

We all have nights where we can’t get to sleep. But for some it becomes chronic and starts to wreak havoc with their physical and emotional well-being. Fortunately there is a viable solution to our sleep and mood problems that is not pharmacologically based. Both accessible and interesting, Chronotherapy features clearly explained science, and fascinating accounts of individual struggles with sleep and depression and their successes with timed light treatment and user-friendly sleep times. If a circadian clock disorder is causing your sleep problem, Chronotherapy offers a real, safe sleep solution.

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Susannah Kent is a Toronto area Fitness and Healthy Lifestyle Instructor.

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