Our bodies are balanced by a 24-hour biological clock called the circadian rhythm. “The circadian rhythm refers to the body’s own physiologic, behavioral, and metabolic cycle that occurs every 24 hours,” says Marisa Kardos Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. This natural cycle cues your body when it’s time to go to sleep and wake up, and can be influenced by internal factors like diet and hormonal imbalances as well as external factors like light and the environment.
Your skin takes cues from your circadian rhythm, so keeping it on beat reinforces the body’s ability to defend against DNA damage due to sun exposure.
How your circadian rhythm impacts your skin
This "master clock" is made up of thousands of neurons called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Melatonin—the popular sleep hormone that you’re likely already familiar with—is an SCN that controls melanin production, which is what gives your skin its pigment. Because the circadian rhythm is influenced by light and darkness, it will signal the brain to begin secreting melanin in the morning, then stop the process at night.
During the day, melanin works as a sort of internal antioxidant to fight off free radical damage from environmental stressors. To support this process, Dr. Garshick recommends using products “that are designed to protect and prevent, such as antioxidants and sunscreen” throughout your waking hours.
When melanin production slows at night, it gives your skin a breather from all of that defensive work so that it can start its reparative process. “While we sleep the skin goes into repair mode, so following the skin clock can help to enhance the DNA repair process especially overnight,” says Dr. Garshick. As you snooze, your body produces fewer stress hormones and more growth hormones, which allows damaged cells—which are the culprit behind the signs of skin aging that come from UV exposure—to be repaired.
In other words, a good night’s rest reinforces the body’s ability to defend against DNA damage due to sun exposure. Sleep accelerates skin regeneration, which means your skin sheds its damaged cells and grows healthy new ones to replace them, ushering fresh blood to the surface to oxygenate your skin. Also, skin gets warmer at night, so products seep in better to yield faster results.
“Using products like retinoids and growth factors to help promote repair and treat sun damage is especially helpful when used at night,” says Dr. Garshick.
What happens to your skin when your circadian rhythm is out of whack
A few key elements can throw off our circadian clocks. Stress, extreme temperatures, blue light, UV rays, travel, inadequate sleep patterns, and poor gut health and eating habits can all contribute. When this happens, it usually shows up on our skin by way of conditions like dermatitis, rosacea, dark under-eye circles, hyperpigmentation, sun damage, premature aging, acne, and inflammation.
“As a result of lack of sleep, the quality of someone’s skin can deteriorate cosmetically and medically,” board-certified dermatologist Robert Anolik, MD, previously told Well+Good. “From a cosmetic perspective, the stressors can weaken the quality of collagen fibers and skin tones, leaving the skin with fine lines and enlarged pores.”
How to reset your skin clock
Because your skin is so closely linked to your circadian rhythm, you want to do what you can to keep that clock ticking properly. This will give your complexion a chance to fully reset and repair damage when you sleep, and a few small lifestyle changes can make a big difference.
1) Get your beauty sleep
This one is probably pretty obvious, but catching proper ZZZs is key for ensuring your circadian rhythm stays on track so that your skin can repair itself overnight. Make sure to sleep a minimum of 8 hours per day and be consistent with the time you sleep and wake up. “Adequate sleep is necessary to achieve optimal results in repairing skin,” says Dr. Garshick.
2) Stay hydrated
“Some studies have shown that disruption of the circadian rhythm can contribute to transepidermal water loss,” says Dr. Garshick. Maintaining adequate hydration levels helps to keep a healthy rhythm, so be sure you’re getting those eight 8-ounce glasses every day. Axelrod suggests “eating foods that are high in water content such as strawberries, cantaloupe, peaches, cucumber, lettuce, celery, cauliflower and more”.
3) Time your meals
A 2017 study found that enzymes responsible for repairing sun-damaged skin have a daily cycle of production that can be offset by eating food at abnormal times every day. Registered dietician Sydney Axelrod Colvin, MS, RD, CDN of Axelrod Nutrition says "There are foods that can help protect our skin from the sun and keep us looking youthful and healthy when consumed consistently around the same time, especially the first meal. This is mostly due to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of certain micronutrients within the food and how it affects the body”.
4) Lower your cortisol levels
High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can trigger melanin production (which causes discoloration and hyperpigmentation), reduce elasticity, and aid in the formation of fine lines and wrinkles. Though your cortisol levels tend to be higher at night (another element that aids in the p.m. repair process), you’ll also want to do what you can to keep them down during the day to keep your circadian rhythm in check. Reduce stress as much as possible, whether by meditating, spending time in nature, taking a walk, or journaling.
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