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Here's What Happens If Your Circadian Rhythm Is Disrupted

By Manjari Bansal
Disturbances in your circadian rhythm may cause insomnia, weight gain, and mental health changes. Find out more about the consequences of a disrupted circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythm is your body’s 24-hour internal clock that regulates many body processes, including your sleep-wake cycle. If you are not sleeping and waking up according to your circadian rhythm, you may experience issues like insomnia, daytime sleepiness, and reduced productivity. Here are five common ways that a disrupted circadian rhythm can affect your overall health.

Insomnia

“A disrupted circadian rhythm may manifest itself as insomnia, where both the quality and duration of sleep is insufficient—or it can create the opposite problem, in which someone is sleepy and fatigued all of the time because their sleep cycle is not jibing with their circadian rhythm,” Jyoti Matta, MD, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Jersey City Medical Center, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“This might be due to a work schedule, such as one that involves night shifts or irregular hours, or it may be due to a unique social situation,” Matta says.

Weight Gain

“A disrupted circadian rhythm, resulting in unhealthy sleep, can promote weight gain. Insufficient sleep can lead to an increased hormonal release of ghrelin, which increases our appetite. Of course, weight gain itself can lead to other problems, such as heart disease,” Matta says.

Research has found a connection between restricted sleep and adverse changes in your metabolism, according to Mayo Clinic. In adults, cravings for high-calorie foods may increase due to an insufficient amount of sleep. Another potential reason for weight gain is the reduction of physical activity due to constant fatigue.  

Reduced Productivity

Changes in your sleep cycle may lead to cognitive and behavioral issues like diminished focus, vigilance, attention, motor skills, and memory. These symptoms can subsequently result in workplace errors, reduced efficiency, or even accidents—according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.  

“A disruptive circadian rhythm can lead to a decrease in work performance, especially those in shift work occupations, because they are sleeping at times that is at odds with the body’s natural propensity for sleep,” Kannan Ramar, MD, a sleep medicine specialist and former President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Poor Mental Health

“Circadian rhythm disruptions can also result in mood changes and the aggravation of anxiety and depression,” Matta says.

According to a 2020 review article published by Translational Psychiatry, the increased prevalence of people experiencing disrupted circadian rhythm has a strong correlation to an uptick in the incidence of mood disorders. 

The article notes that several neural systems associated with emotion are regulated by circadian rhythm. It’s therefore unsurprising that significant disruptions in circadian rhythm can contribute to mood disturbances and disorders. 

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

You may feel extremely sleepy during the day when your circadian rhythm is disturbed, according to Cleveland Clinic. Excessive daytime sleepiness, also called hypersomnia, is characterized by problems with staying awake throughout the day. You may fall asleep at any time and in any situation, even when you are driving or working.

“Driving is a task that demands constant attention, and people driving after a long work shift or a night shift may either become too unfocused or actually fall asleep at the wheel, which can gravely endanger themselves or someone else,” Matta adds.

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