What is a circadian rhythm disorder?

The circadian system, also called the biological clock, is the natural daily cycle that regulates patterns of rest and activity. The circadian rhythm helps people maintain regular sleep-wake schedules, ensuring that the brain and body systems get enough rest each night. There are many different types of circadian rhythm disorders that can disrupt the cycle and lead to insomnia, drowsiness during waking hours, and general malaise. A circadian rhythm disorder can be temporary, as is the case with jet lag or working unusual hours, or it can be a chronic problem that affects a person for months or years at a time.

In most cases, a circadian rhythm disorder is short-lived and is caused by traveling to different time zones, illness, or shift changes at work. A person can get enough sleep when time is disrupted from their daily routine. The disorders are especially common among people who work overnight or night shifts after being used to working during the day. It is often difficult for people to fall asleep when they are used to being awake, especially if it is light outside.

A chronic circadian rhythm disorder is a clinically diagnosable condition that is related to a brain abnormality or chemical imbalance. The most common types are advanced sleep phase syndrome (ASPS) and delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). ASPS involves an inability to stay awake during the early hours of the night and a chronic tendency to wake up very early in the morning, despite efforts to change sleep patterns. DSPS sufferers are usually unable to have a regular sleep pattern at all.

Treatment for a circadian rhythm disorder depends on the types of problems a patient is facing and the length of time they have been struggling with insomnia. Most mild cases related to travel or work hours go away within a few days once the body adjusts to a new pattern of sleeping and waking. If a normal pattern cannot be established or a person is diagnosed with a chronic disorder, he or she can take steps to relieve symptoms. Maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and taking steps to reduce stress can help increase alertness during waking hours and relieve insomnia at bedtime.

Some people who suffer from chronic circadian rhythm problems benefit from behavioral therapy sessions with psychologists. A therapist can help a client identify environmental causes of stress and anxiety and learn how to better deal with them. Medications may be considered if other treatment measures fail and a person's health begins to deteriorate. Prescription sleep medications, such as melatonin, and anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, are often effective in managing a circadian rhythm disorder.

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