Your circadian rhythms are driven by a daily biological clock that persists even in a constant environment. This biological rhythm has a selective advantage in nature, allowing organisms to ‘anticipate’ sunrise (or sunset) rather than just react to these events. All of us are familiar with this rhythmic aspect of our life, whether it’s the regular timing of waking up in the morning, the rise and set of the sun, or hunger cues at normal intervals during the day.
We’ve also experienced what it feels like when these regular and predictable environmental patterns get disrupted by things like travel across many time zones (jet lag), social commitments that extend past our natural bed time (social jet lag), or a new baby (or puppy) in the house.
These are usually relatively short disturbances in the grand scheme of things, but if they persist for long periods of time they can be detrimental to our biological functioning. In turn, they compromise our overall health and well-being. One of the less talked about consequences of chronic misalignment is the impact on our skin health.
Your skin contains circadian clock genes, which play a role in the regulation of the circadian rhythm (Zanello et.al., 2000). Transepidermal water loss, keratinocyte proliferation, skin blood flow, and skin temperature have all been shown to have circadian variations. It makes sense that when these natural rhythms become disrupted, we will see it on our face (literally!).
Below is a quick outline of behaviors that impact the activation of necessary processes which can influence skin health:
“Beauty sleep” is 100% a real thing. When your sleep and wake times are irregular, it makes getting quality sleep (enough time spent in REM and slow wave sleep) that much more difficult. Inconsistent and low-quality sleep has a wide range of effects on many underlying biological processes, including hormone production and release, stress levels, inflammation, and even your eating habits.
All of those can have a substantial impact on the health of your skin. The signs of not optimizing sleep show up in the form of fine lines, uneven pigmentation, and reduced elasticity–all of which mean more wrinkles.
Consistent sleep and wake timing, as well as ensuring a cold, dark, and quiet environment are key. These habits and environmental conditions optimize time in deeper stages of sleep (when the body releases a majority of human growth hormone), a necessary ingredient to produce collagen. Poor quality sleep also raises cortisol levels which interfere with collagen production.
Exposure to natural light in the early morning hours sets our circadian rhythm/internal clock and enables quality sleep. We need the sun’s bright blue light in the morning to become alert and active. At night, darkness, or at least the absence of blue light, jump-starts the brain’s (and consequently the skin’s), sleep and recovery mode.
Timing your meals effectively helps promote “circadian synergy.” I do my best to eat with the sun. Skin health, and our overall health, is not just about what we eat–of equal importance is when we eat. I try to eat while it’s light, and limit what I eat during hours when it is dark (with a hard stop at 7 pm). I see in my WHOOP data the earlier I eat dinner, the better I sleep and the better I feel and look the next day.
Research indicates that elevated glucose levels can speed up the aging of the skin and create conditions that lead to acne. The biggest culprit that creates an obvious elevation in glucose levels is, no surprise, sugar. Excess sugar in the body appears to speed up processes associated with:
Excess sugar also can cause inflammation. Chronic low-grade inflammation produces enzymes that break down collagen and elastin, resulting in more visible fine lines and less elasticity.
Stress can spike insulin levels (just like eating sugar can). When we allow stress to build without giving ourselves time to rest we end up releasing too much cortisol. This biochemical imbalance interferes with your ability to fall asleep at night and will also fragment sleep, leading to less time in deeper restorative stages and more time in light and awake stages.
The effects of stress are particularly correlated with acne breakouts, as well as dull, dry and tired looking skin. Building in moments of rest (diaphragmatic breathing is a great option) after acute stressors is a key skill that will help drive quality sleep, which will in turn lead to healthier, younger looking skin.
Water solves for a lot. Want to boost metabolism? Have some water! Proper hydration can boost your body’s ability to burn fat. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that consuming water (about 17 oz) increases metabolic rate by 30% in healthy men and women. Want to improve your focus? Drink some water! Your brain needs a lot of oxygen to function at optimum levels, so drinking plenty of water ensures that it’s getting all it needs.
Want better looking skin? Again, water! It replenishes skin tissue and skin cells, plus it improves your skin’s elasticity.
Circadian rhythm disruption has been implicated in a wide variety of dermatologic conditions. By understanding and adopting basic behaviors that contribute to circadian alignment, we can then start to create a foundation that enables our underlying biological processes to function in the most optimal way.
In principle, the less friction we create for our body to do what it wants to do on the inside, the more benefits we will observe on the outside.