The Single Most Common Cause of Fatigue (and Sleep Problems): Disrupted Circadian Rhythm

Author : Ari Whitten
Medical Reviewer: Evan Hirsch, M.D.

Let’s start with a simple fact that everyone dealing with poor sleep and fatigue needs to know: The single most common cause of fatigue is circadian rhythm disruption.

Now, that we know that, let’s talk about what your circadian rhythm is, and how to fix it. 

First, you may want to know what all this talk of circadian rhythm can do for you. So here’s the bottom line of what optimizing your circadian rhythm can do for you: 

  • Fix night-time awakenings 
  • Fix insomnia
  • Dramatically increase your energy
  • Fix trouble falling asleep due to a racing mind
  • Boost your mood and brain function
  • Dramatically decreases your risk of the major killers like heart diseases, diabetes, cancer and more
  • Sleep deeper than you have in years or decades
  • Wake up bursting with energy every morning

Sound pretty good? Okay, so now let’s talk about the science of what the circadian rhythm is and how to optimize it…

What Is Your Circadian Rhythm?

This world of ours is changing so fast that it’s hard to keep track. Yet, there is one thing that remains constant: Every 24 hours, the sun rises and the sun sets.

As it turns out, that simple fact is a massively important part of all our lives. Indeed, many of our most basic physiological functions (and those of virtually all of the millions of species of microorganisms, plants, and animals on the planet) are tied to this rise and fall of the sun.

So what exactly is the circadian rhythm?

Simple: It’s the 24-hour biological clock built into your brain.

The link between the outer world of light and darkness, and the inner world of our biochemistry is the circadian clock or circadian rhythm.

As much as this talk of “circadian rhythm” may seem odd and not very relevant to everyday life, in fact, you experience the circadian rhythm in action every single day. This is the reason you go to sleep each night and are awake each day – because of this 24-hour clock in your brain regulating your hormones and neurotransmitters that control sleep and wakefulness.

So why does the circadian rhythm matter?

Simple: A large and rapidly growing body of new research has discovered that the circadian rhythm is a key controller of our…

  • Sleep quality
  • Mood
  • Motivation
  • Body fat
  • Metabolism
  • Cellular regeneration
  • And of course, our energy levels!

Again, it’s not just our sleep – the circadian rhythm is one of the body’s key regulators of our HEALTH.  

To give you an idea of the research…

  • A study titled Metabolism and the circadian clock converge notes: The circadian clock interfaces with metabolism in numerous ways that are essential for maintaining metabolic homeostasis.” [5]
  • Also, consider this conclusion from other researchers: “The impact of the biological clock goes beyond compelling the body to fall asleep and to wake up again. The biological clock also modulates our hour-to-hour waking behavior, as reflected in fatigue, alertness, and performance…”[9]
  • As neurobiologist Joseph Takahashi says: “Circadian rhythm is being tied to so many important functions. We’re just beginning to discover all the molecular pathways that this gene network regulates. It’s not just the sleep-wake cycle. There are system-wide, drastic changes.”[7]

Key Points: 

  • The circadian rhythm is your 24-hour biological clock built into your brain. 
  • It is a major controller of everything from your energy level, wakefulness, vitality, mood, psychological health, sleep cycles, metabolic rate, body composition, appetite, mental and physical performance, and more!

What Can Optimizing Your Circadian Rhythm Do For You?

Take a look at the following table that shows the typical characteristics strongly affected by circadian rhythm:

typical characteristics strongly affected by the circadian rhythm │ why am I so tired,

(If you know you need help with your sleep and your energy levels, I strongly recommend grabbing our new Sleep and Circadian Rhythm Optimization Program HERE.)

Disrupted Circadian Rhythm Makes Us Diseased and Fatigued

Today, scientists are learning that disrupted circadian rhythms are a dire health hazard. For example, “A growing body of evidence suggests that a desynchronization of circadian rhythms may play a role in various tumoral diseases (cancer), diabetes, obesity, and depression.”[6]

And as you’ll see in this article, that’s just scratching the surface.

In Wiley and Formby’s book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival, they make the case that disrupted circadian rhythm is a major contributor to most modern-day degenerative diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer—just as big of a contributor as our exercise and nutritional habits.

It is only in the last few years that the science on this subject has evolved to the point where we can really know exactly what sort of effect disrupted circadian rhythm is having, but the body of scientific literature is growing rapidly. And the results are not pretty.

Disrupted circadian rhythm has been shown to:

  • Contribute to inflammatory diseases. [10] (And keep in mind that the majority of degenerative diseases from Alzheimer’s to heart disease to depression to diabetes to cancer are now linked with inflammation).
  • Dramatically weaken your immune system. One study found that people with less than 7 hours of sleep were 2.94 times more likely to develop a cold than those with 8 hours or more of sleep. And they found that people with worse sleep efficiency (a sign of poor circadian rhythm) were 5.50 times more likely to develop a cold than those with high sleep efficiency.[11]
  • Increase risk of metabolic syndrome.[12] [13]
  • Increase risk of cardiovascular disease.[14]
  • Increase levels of stress hormones like cortisol.[15]
  • Predispose to cancer, and accelerate tumor growth. Tumors grow two to three times faster in laboratory animals with severe circadian rhythm dysfunctions.[16]
  • Increase risk of psychiatric disorders and neurodegenerative diseases.[17]
  • Seriously impair your memory.
  • Worsen a long list of other diseases and disorders, including hypothyroidism, heart disease, stomach ulcers, constipation, mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
  • Accelerate the aging process.[18]
  • Increase rates of depression and anxiety. In polar areas and winters where there are nearly six months of darkness, such as Alaska, suicide rates are 16 times the world average (2013).[19]  Indeed, people with chronic insomnia are 10 times as likely to suffer from clinical depression and 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety.[20]
  • Profoundly decrease energy levels and increase daytime sleepiness and fatigue.
  • Dramatically increase your overall risk of dying from any cause.

Key Points:

    • Disrupted circadian rhythm is a major cause of both sleep problems and fatigue.
    • In addition, it is also one of the biggest drivers of disease – from cancer, to autoimmune disease, to brain diseases and more.

How The Circadian Rhythm Works (And Why Most People Have a Dysfunctional Circadian Rhythm)

Despite the fact that most of us in the modern world have no idea what the circadian rhythm is, let alone have any concept of what controls it or how it affects our physiology, circadian rhythm is a massive factor in our health. And our modern world—which is almost perfectly engineered to disrupt our circadian rhythm—is wrecking our health, vitality, body composition, energy levels, and quality of life.

So why is the modern world wrecking our circadian rhythm? Let’s take a look at how the circadian rhythm system actually works…

Our bodies respond to visual cues in our environment, chiefly light and darkness, to release hormones and neurotransmitters that either power us up and awake for daytime or prepare us for sleep and repair.

To simplify:

  • Light = cue to the brain to be awake, alert, active and go into ENERGY mode.
  • Darkness = cue to the brain to be tired and go into SLEEP mode

The way this works is that light enters our eyeballs and specifically the blue light part of the spectrum (think the blue sky) triggers specific receptors in our eye called melanopsin receptors that are connected via nerves to the circadian clock area of the brain (called the suprachiasmatic nucleus).

Once the circadian clock area of the brain gets the blue light signal from the nerves, that is translated into “it’s daytime – the time to be awake, alert, active and energetic.” And the brain then initiates a whole cascade of different neurotransmitter and hormone changes that rewire your physiology into daytime/active/energy mode.

Once the sun goes down, the lack of light entering the eyes and triggering the nerves that feed into the circadian clock of the brain then trigger the brain to say “it’s nighttime – the time for tiredness, relaxation, rest, regeneration, and sleep.” And the brain then initiates a whole cascade of different neurotransmitter and hormone changes that rewire your physiology into nighttime/rest/sleep mode.

Why Do Most People Have a Messed Up Circadian Rhythm?

The answer: Because the modern world we live in is fundamentally mismatched to the signals our biology – and our circadian rhythm in particular – is designed for.

Humans are designed for an outdoor existence in tune with the rise and fall of the sun.

We’re not designed to be indoors almost all day, and then to be staring at all sorts of artificial light sources after the sun sets.

Simply put: Virtually all of us in modern society are suffering from one degree or another of circadian rhythm disruption. 

Or, as one circadian rhythm researcher puts it, we are all living in a sort of “circadian fog.”

In short…

  • We’re not getting enough of a Daytime/Energy Mode signal into our circadian clock in our brain during the daytime (when we should be getting it)
  • We’re getting way too much of a Daytime/Energy Mode signal at night (when we shouldn’t be getting it).

This may seem to be a trivial difference to you. But what if I told you that it is the difference between normal vs. abnormal levels of dozens of hormones and neurotransmitters that affect everything from your mood, to your metabolism, to how fat or lean you are, to clearing toxins out of your brain and body, to ridding the body of DNA-damaged cells (critical for preventing cancer), to your sleep, to your energy levels?

Would you still think it was trivial?

In fact, that is precisely what our circadian rhythm does.

While everyone in the health sphere has implored us for the last several decades to work on “diet and exercise,” the research now indicates that most health experts have been leaving out a major aspect of optimizing energy levels, health, and body composition that is as important as both a good exercise program and a good nutrition program: A good circadian rhythm program.

Key Points:

    • Light is the primary regulator of our circadian rhythm.
    • Several aspects of the modern world are causing an epidemic of chronically dysfunctional circadian rhythms.

Struggling With Sleep? Your Sleep Quality Is Dependent On A Strong Circadian Rhythm

The circadian rhythm is also the primary determinant of how well you sleep. And how well you sleep, in turn, has a massive impact on your energy levels.

Importantly, this is NOT just a simple matter of “getting your 7-8 hours of sleep” as most people think.

Both how long you sleep and just as importantly, your “sleep quality” – how deep and restorative your sleep is on a cellular level.

Circadian rhythms control our sleep—how much of it we get, the quality of sleep we get, and what kind of cellular regeneration processes either do/do not happen because of how deeply we do or don’t sleep.

Lack of sleep due to circadian rhythm disruption can make you very tired by itself, but on top of lack of sleep, an even bigger issue is that most of us aren’t getting nearly enough quality deep sleep.

If you routinely sleep 7 or 8 hours and still wake up groggy and tired, you know what I mean.

Let’s look at how bad the problem of sleep and circadian rhythm disruption is right now.

Here are some statistics:

  • Today, individuals sleep 20% less than 100 years ago[21]
  • Over 30% of the population suffers from insomnia[22]
  • Women are twice as likely to suffer from insomnia[24]
  • 40% of middle-aged people report short sleep duration[26]
  • 50-70 million US adults have a sleep disorder[30]

When nearly 1 in 2 adults is dealing with poor sleep, there is a serious problem.

One critically important study titled “Life between Clocks: Daily Temporal Patterns of Human Chronotypes” concluded that due to changing sleep habits as a result of modern industrialization, “a majority of humans are sleep-deprived during the workweek.”

So why is this happening? Is it because we’re all just genetically designed to be terrible sleepers?

No! The real reason behind the epidemic of poor sleep is circadian rhythm disruption!

Sleep And Energy Are Connected Via The Circadian Rhythm - Why am I so tired │ Blue Blocking Glasses

Sleep and energy are two sides of the same coin – and they are connected via the circadian rhythm.

  • Strong circadian rhythm = deep sleep, powerful cell regeneration, and lots of energy
  • Blunted circadian rhythm = poor sleep, incomplete cell regeneration, and chronic fatigue/tiredness

Key Point: Disrupted circadian rhythm is THE single biggest and most common cause of both sleep problems AND chronic lack of energy.

(Note: If you have fatigue and sleep problems, check out Sleep and Circadian Rhythm Optimization Program HERE.)

Struggling With Energy Levels? A Disrupted Circadian Rhythm Makes You Tired/Fatigued All The Time

On the subject of energy levels/fatigue specifically, disrupted circadian rhythm is now linked with numerous conditions related to poor mood and energy levels:

  • Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia [34] [35]
  • Depression[36] [37]
  • Anhedonia (lack of ability to feel pleasure) [38]
  • Anxiety[39]
  • Mood disorders[40]
  • Daytime sleepiness[41] [42] [43] (this symptom is seen in all circadian rhythm disorders)

One study that sought to determine the level of sleepiness in the American population found that almost 1 in 3 people in America suffers from issues with chronic daytime sleepiness:

  • Excessive sleepiness is highly prevalent in the American population. It was strongly associated with insufficient sleep and various sleep disorders as well as mental and organic diseases.”[44]
  • One critically important study titled Life between Clocks: Daily Temporal Patterns of Human Chronotypes concluded that due to changing sleep habits as a result of modern industrialization, “a majority of humans are sleep deprived during the workweek.”
  • As far as the major cause of our energy problems and chronic daytime sleepiness, well one important study published in the journal Brain gives us insight into that. The researchers concluded: “The most common cause of daytime sleepiness is insufficient sleep.” [45]
  • In fact, mice exhibit symptoms of depression, lethargy, and lack of interest in food when subjected to light all night and even exhibit the same symptoms when subjected to only 5 lux light, approximately 1/10th of the light generated by a cell phone.

Even one quick pulse of light – such as flipping on the lights when you wake up during the night or go to the bathroom – is enough to suppress melatonin and disrupt circadian rhythm, which can lead to subtle degrees (that you’re not even conscious about) of sleep loss and daytime sleepiness/fatigue the following day.

For example, in a recent study on 12 adults, 6 of whom read iPads and 6 who read paper books before bed, the “iPad readers took longer to fall asleep, felt less sleepy at night and had shorter REM sleep compared to the book readers, researchers found. The iPad readers also secreted less melatonin, which helps regulate your sleep. They were also more tired than book readers the following day, even if both got a full eight hours of sleep.”[33]

Another study concluded that it’s often the most driven and hard-working people that suffer from this the most: 

“Busy people tend to regard sleep as a bank from which time can be borrowed as necessary to allow them to accomplish more by prolonging wakefulness. Thus, a sleep-debt is accumulated over time. If the sleep-debt is not repaid in sleep, per se, some other currency must be used—this usually takes the form of daytime dysfunction and may include cognitive impairment, disordered mood, suboptimal performance, physical fatigue or mental drowsiness.”[46]

To put this simply, your energy levels are dependent upon your circadian rhythm.[47]

Most of us have become aware in recent years of how our progressive dissociation from the nutrition and movement/exercise habits of our ancestors (i.e. eating more junk and becoming more sedentary) is creating massive disease epidemics and health problems. We now know that circadian rhythm habits are just as important as those factors, and that disrupted circadian rhythm is damaging our health in much the same way that junk food and being sedentary are.

Key Point: Disrupted circadian rhythm is the single most common cause of poor energy levels. 

Why Disrupted Circadian Rhythm Makes You Tired All The Time: The Mechanisms Behind The Circadian Rhythm-Fatigue Link

So let’s talk about the specific ways that disrupted circadian rhythm ends up wrecking our energy levels and causing us to be tired all the time.

1. Weakening Mitochondria (the energy generators in your cells) and Making Them Susceptible to Damage

Most people know melatonin as a sleep-inducing hormone. And it is certainly that.

But most people have absolutely no idea that melatonin is absolutely vital for mitochondrial function, protects mitochondria from damage, and is vital for mitochondrial regeneration while we sleep.

It turns out that the most powerful antioxidant in existence is not vitamin C or vitamin E or acai or goji berries, but SLEEP and a strong circadian rhythm!

Of course, sleep is not an “antioxidant” in the sense that you consume it in a pill and it gets absorbed into your body and acts as an antioxidant. It’s actually something hundreds of times more powerful than that.

Melatonin – the hormone our brain secretes to trigger sleep when it gets dark – is an incredibly potent and very unique kind of antioxidant. Importantly, unlike vitamin A, C, E and virtually all other antioxidants, melatonin is able to get into the mitochondria, where protecting cells from oxidative damage (free radicals) actually matters. (Note: Virtually all studies on vitamin A, C, and E supplements have failed to show benefits on aging and disease prevention,[48] and researchers now suspect this is why – because these antioxidants can’t get to the part of the cell where it really matters, the mitochondria.)

Evolutionarily speaking, humans had plenty of melatonin secreted every night. When the sun went down, their brains pumped out plenty of melatonin. But guess what? In the modern world, we have all kinds of artificial light blaring into our eyes each night after the sun goes down. What does that do? It suppresses melatonin! As long as you have blue light entering your eyes, it’s sending a “daytime signal” to your brain and that will suppress melatonin. So each night you do this, you have less melatonin getting into your mitochondria than you should have – so you are indirectly accelerating aging, predisposing to disease, and causing your mitochondria to accumulate damage because they don’t have the antioxidant melatonin to combat oxidative damage.

There are a number of impressive – and little known – studies showing how vital it is for mitochondrial health that you produce LOTS of melatonin each night while you sleep. The melatonin we release that prepares us for sleep nourishes the mitochondria in numerous ways including:

  • Acts to prevent free radical damage directly in the actual mitochondria[52][53][54][55] (which is very unique to melatonin since virtually all other “antioxidants” cannot do this)
  • Regulates of mitochondrial bioenergetic function and maintains respiratory complex activities, electron transport chain, and ATP production in mitochondria[56] [57] [58]
  • Acts as a neuroprotectant in the brain, preventing the kind of oxidative stress/nitrosative stress-induced mitochondrial dysfunction seen in experimental models of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease[59]
  • Slows aging [60][61]

And here’s the big problem: When you have poor circadian rhythm habits, you have less melatonin in your body that can get to the mitochondria.

Too much blue light at night (and blunted circadian rhythm in general, from poor circadian rhythm habits) greatly inhibits melatonin release, which directly leads to grossly negative impacts upon mitochondrial dysfunction, causing mitochondrial fragility and die-off.[62][63][64]

Over time, what that means is that mitochondria will accumulate more damage, will not function as well, and you will not rebuild new healthy mitochondria nearly as well. You’ll be slowly accumulating more and more damaged and defective mitochondria, and inevitably, you will end up fatigued.

If we lose our mitochondria – or accumulate lots of weak and damaged mitochondria — we lose our health, energy, immunity, strength, and vitality as well. We age faster, we are far more susceptible to disease, and we end up chronically fatigued.

Is it starting to make sense why you’re feeling so tired?

If the mitochondria need to regenerate each night in order to manufacture the ATP that gives you energy, then without sleep, you’ll slowly be sapping away your body’s ability to produce energy at the cellular level day after day.


2. Deficient Autophagy (Cell Cleanup and Regeneration)

Yet another problem created by disrupted circadian rhythm is impaired autophagy. “Auto” means “self” and “phagy” means “consume.” So autophagy literally means “to consume one’s self.” Who would’ve thought that we would ever have a problem with eating ourselves, right? Kind of a bizarre idea.

Autophagy is basically the process where your body “eats” and “digests” all the broken down and damaged parts of the cell and rebuilds new healthy cell parts. Think of it like recycling on the cellular level.

Maintaining clean cells – avoiding the accumulation of cellular junk – is vital to slowing aging and maintain healthy mitochondria (i.e. high energy levels) as we get older. (Note: The 2016 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to a scientist for discovering key mechanisms of autophagy).

But this junk accumulates precisely because we are NOT able to maintain autophagy!

When autophagy is not working well, that means you are functioning today on yesterday’s cell parts.

And that means lots of damaged cell parts are not being recycled and rebuilt into new healthy cell parts.

We also know that disrupted circadian rhythm and sleep impairs autophagy and leads to the accumulation of cell damage and mitochondrial damage.[79] [80]

The reason why is that autophagy happens primarily at night, while we sleep and while we are in a fasted state. And it depends on the quality of the circadian rhythm (and all the hormones it regulates) as well as the depth/quality of sleep.

So when circadian rhythm and sleep are off, autophagy will be impaired.

Ultimately, that translates into increased propensity for disease (e.g. cancer) and fatigue.

Part of autophagy is something called mitophagy, which is basically the same process of autophagy, but happening specifically within the mitochondria.

Autophagy and mitophagy are like the end of the day clean up in your kitchen. What happens if you don’t clean up all the dirty dishes each night after making food all day? The dirty dishes in the sink start to pile up, and they start stinking up your kitchen. Food particles start to accumulate, mold and bacteria start to grow, and everything just starts to get gross.

See, our mitochondria are being damaged all the time, and each night while we sleep, our bodies are supposed to go in and repair all the damaged mitochondria.

But if your body is not able to go in and get rid of all the damage (i.e. to clean the dirty dishes), the dysfunctional and damaged mitochondria accumulate. It’s sort of like waking up to a kitchen full of dirty and disgusting stinky dishes, instead of waking up to a spotless and impeccable kitchen.

A big reason why disrupted circadian rhythm is linked to so many diseases from cancer, to Alzheimer’s, to obesity, to fatigue is that it suppresses autophagy.

In other words, it prevents your body from cleaning up the junk in the cells and mitochondria, and it prevents the body from rebuilding new healthy cell parts.

When you don’t have a strong circadian rhythm, it inhibits autophagy and mitophagy, which ultimately results in your body slowly being filled with more and more damaged cells with faulty mitochondria.

As it happens, of course, you will notice that you’re getting progressively more fatigued.

Authophagy and Circadian Rhythm - Why am I so tired,

Disrupted circadian rhythm and poor sleep ► Decreased autophagy and mitophagy ► Accumulation and cell and mitochondrial damage ► Fatigue

3. Hormonal Dysregulation and Fat Gain

Yet another way that disrupted circadian rhythm and sleep cause fatigue is through their effect on hormones.

Poor circadian rhythm and sleep habits directly impact several important hormones, neuropeptides and even the expression of genes that regulate energy levels, body composition, and health…

Poor Circadian Rhythm and Sleep Habits Directly Impact Importnat Hormones - Why am I so tired,

    • Leptin and ghrelin: Altered levels lead to increased appetite, slower metabolic rate, lower energy and fat gain. If you’re wondering why you have an urge to snack at night, researchers have found that after just 2 days of sleep restriction, levels of ghrelin spike while levels of satiety fall. Researchers found that just 2 days of 4 hours of sleep loss produced “reductions in leptin (the appetite suppressant) and elevations in ghrelin (the appetite stimulant) and increased hunger and appetite, especially an appetite for foods with high-carbohydrate contents.”[83]
    • Thyroid hormones: Altered levels lead to a slower metabolism and lower energy levels.
    • Cortisol: Chronically higher levels (especially at night) drive muscle loss, insulin resistance, brain degeneration, poor sleep quality, and many of the harmful effects of stress. “Elevations of evening cortisol levels in chronic sleep loss are likely to promote the development of insulin resistance, a risk factor for obesity and diabetes.”[91]
    • Orexin: A key neurotransmitter that when suppressed, decreases energy levels and wakefulness.
    • Endocannabinoid system: Disruptions here lead to decreased resilience, increased pain, higher perceived stress, and increased hunger. In a recent study on sleep deprivation, researchers found lost sleep over just two nights impact blood serum endocannabionid (cannabis-like compounds in the body) levels, which make more “hedonistic” eating and snacks more appealing. The result is that people tend to be unconsciously driven to consume more highly processed high-fat and high-sugar foods. [84][85][86] In fact, circadian rhythm and sleep disruption activate many of the same pathways as cannabis which notoriously gives pot smokers “the munchies” – those ravenous cravings for all things fatty, fried, salty, and sweet. Insufficient sleep dramatically increases caloric intake. One study found that just a few nights of modestly shortened sleep duration increased subjects caloric intake by a whopping 500 calories per day![87]
    • Growth hormone: A key hormone for cellular regeneration. Poor circadian rhythm suppresses growth hormone secretion at night.
    • Melatonin: Key for sleep quality and protecting your mitochondrial health (your cellular energy generators)

Many of these hormonal changes can directly cause low energy levels (e.g. low melatonin, high cortisol at night, and low orexin). But in addition to that, the increased levels of body fat are a major contributor to fatigue.

Another study titled Sleep and circadian rhythms: Key components in the regulation of energy metabolism states

Over the same time period that obesity has reached epidemic levels, the amount of daily sleep time achieved by American adults has decreased by 1–2 h… As of 2006, there were at least 35 epidemiological studies linking alterations in sleep time with adverse health outcomes, including obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.”[88]

But is this link just correlative, or causal? The researchers then go on to make the case that there is substantial scientific evidence showing a causal (not just correlative) link with mechanisms that include increased ghrelin and decreased leptin levels—important hormones in the regulation of hunger and metabolic rate which profoundly influence body composition. They noted “it was estimated that if the self-reported appetite ratings in sleep restricted subjects were translated into actual caloric intake, it would represent an extra 350–500 k/cal per day…”,[89] which, if you do the math, you’ll realize that this factor alone could be responsible for over 3 pounds of fat gain per month, or upwards of 30 pounds of fat gain per year.

In particular, disrupted sleep and circadian rhythm create a constellation of hormonal changes that drive fat gain. And the accumulation of excess body fat is itself harmful to energy levels, by promoting poorer blood sugar regulation and chronic inflammation.

Key Point: Poor circadian rhythm and sleep ► Fat gain ► Inflammation and blood sugar dysregulation ► Fatigue

4. Hindering Toxin Clearance From the Brain

Perhaps one of the biggest ways that disrupted circadian rhythm and poor sleep cause fatigue is actually based on a new scientific discovery.

It turns out that one of the primary functions of sleep is actually to clear toxins out of the brain. See, our brain produces large amounts of toxic waste products each day just by going about the processes of thinking and coordinating body processes.

Think of it like a city, where each person’s home is the equivalent of an individual cell in your brain. As each person goes about their day and drives to work and makes food or goes to the bathroom, waste products are created. That’s why every city has sanitation services – the garbage trucks come by and pick up all the garbage each person creates each and every week.

The same is true in your brain. Every day, our brain cells produce large amounts of toxic waste products. And as this new discovery has shown, each night while we sleep, the brain cleanses itself of these waste products.

So what does all of this have to do with disrupted circadian rhythm and sleep?

Simple: Most of this glymphatic drainage happens at night while we sleep. And the depth and quality of your sleep is vital to allowing the glymphatic system to work efficiently.

This is likely why so many neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) are preceded by sleep disorders.[102]

According to Scientific American,

“Sleep disturbances often occur early, sometimes decades before the symptoms that characterize various neurodegenerative diseases. In fact, several studies have found that the extent of sleep disruption predicts subsequent cognitive decline or disease.”[103]

It is also now known that there is a direct link between disruption of the circadian rhythm and neurodegeneration. First, it was shown that amyloid (remember, that’s the stuff associated with Alzheimer’s and many other neurodegenerative conditions) levels are higher during the waking hours than at night during sleep. It’s also been shown that sleep deprivation in mice will lead to the buildup of amyloid in the brain.[104] This suggests that sleep is critical for allowing the brain to clears away amyloid.

Then there was a key study by Kristine Yaffe and colleagues in 2011:

They “collected circadian data from 1,282 healthy elderly women … They assessed participants’ cognitive functions five years later, and found that various measures of impaired circadian rhythms conferred significantly higher risks for mild cognitive impairment (which often presages Alzheimer’s) or actual dementia.”[105]

Here’s the really interesting part. It’s likely that not just sleep deprivation but also the disruption of the circadian rhythm both amplify the buildup of toxins in the brain. Researchers have also done an experiment on mice where they’ve directly altered circadian clock genes, such that mice still were awake and asleep for the same amount of hours, but the rise and fall of activity of circadian clock genes was disrupted. (This would be the equivalent of a person laying in bed each night for 8 or more hours, but having really poor circadian rhythm habits).

What happened?

The mice gradually developed inflammation in the brain, loss of synapses (brain neuron connections) and cell damage. And they also saw reduced activity of genes involved in the cellular antioxidant defense system, so the cells were made more susceptible to further damage.[106] That’s a recipe for progressive neurodegeneration.

According to the researchers: “The mouse gets a kind of neuroinflammatory syndrome that’s pretty striking. Circadian clock genes clearly play some important role in maintaining the brain.” [107]

Now, there is one more interesting layer to this story that I’ll add. One chronic fatigue syndrome researcher named Raymond Perrin, PhD actually believes that buildup of toxins in the brain due to poor lymph drainage at night is the primary cause of chronic fatigue syndrome.

So if you were wondering about the connection with energy levels, there you go. Various brain areas are critical regulators of alertness and energy levels. When they get inflamed and damaged, those are signals to decrease energy levels. 

Basically, here’s the way this all ties together:

Poor circadian rhythm and sleep ► poor drainage of toxins from the brain during sleep ► chronic brain inflammation and cell damage ► chronic fatigue (and potentially brain diseases)

Key Point: There are 4 major mechanisms that circadian rhythm disruption causes fatigue: 

  1. Melatonin suppression (which causes damage to our mitochondria — our cellular energy generators).
  2. Deficient autophagy
  3. Hormonal dysregulation
  4. Impaired toxin clearance from the brain

The Energy Blueprint Keys to Fixing Circadian Rhythms and Sleep

A lot of people who are trying to improve their sleep want some sleep “tricks” or sleep “hacks” to fix their issues.

I am here to tell you that is not the way it works. You cannot achieve a strong, rejuvenating, and restorative sleep by popping a pill or doing a sleep “hack.” It may work short-term, but in the long run, the effects will wear off.

When it comes to not being so tired all the time, it’s all about optimizing your circadian rhythm habits. Simple as that. If you want to sleep deeply and wake up filled with all-day energy, then you need to optimize your circadian rhythm.

Here are three key tips from The Energy Blueprint on how to reset your circadian rhythms and get good sleep again.

1. Get The Devices Off And Out

Get your devices out of your bedroom - why am I so tired, theenergyblueprint

It turns out that it’s not just the blue light is to blame for our lack of sleep. EMFs (electromagnetic fields) – the electricity itself irradiated by electronic devices from the TV to our printers, routers, laptops, video games, but especially phone, Kindles, and iPads (since we’re often in bed with these) —these EMFs themselves cause sleep disruption as well.

So there are two major ways these devices interfere with our energy levels:

  1. By emitting blue light that disrupts circadian rhythm.
  2. By emitting low-level radiation/electromagnetic fields (EMFs).

One 2008 study showed that people exposed to radiation from their mobile phones before bedtime had more trouble falling asleep and reaching deep sleep. One study found that “The pineal gland is likely to sense EMFs as light but, as a consequence may decrease the melatonin production.”[108]

In this review of the scientific literature, more than one hundred experimental data of human and animal studies of changes in melatonin levels due to power-frequency electric and magnetic fields exposure were analyzed.  The researchers concluded that “the results show the significance of disruption of melatonin due to exposure to weak EMFs, which may possibly lead to long-term health effects in humans.” [109]

They found that exposure to an electronic device – not just the light, but the electromagnetic field around the device – has the ability to disrupt circadian rhythm.

Sometimes when I tell people about how electronic devices disrupt sleep and circadian rhythm (from the blue light and the EMFs), they reply “but I fall asleep just fine after reading my iPad or being on my phone or watching TV.”

And here’s a key point to grasp: Yes, you will still fall asleep. Of course, the body still needs sleep and you will fall asleep. BUT, these things are:

  1. Delaying sleep onset
  2. Disrupting the hormonal cascade that needs to happen before and during sleep
  3. Decreasing sleep efficiency (this is a key point, because this is the depth and quality of your sleep – i.e. how regenerative your sleep is per hour of time you spend in bed).

So yes, you can still fall asleep just fine. But even though you fall asleep, you are still suffering consequences of these habits that you’re not even aware of. Like, for example, being more fatigued.

So the key is to get the electronic devices out of the room and off.

In fact, according to the 2014 Sleep in America Poll, 53 percent of respondents who turn electronics off while sleeping tend to rate their sleep as excellent compared to just 27 percent of those who leave their devices on.[110]

Here’s what to do:

  1. You should also avoid watching TV or using a computer or tablet at least an hour or two before sleep.
  2. If you do keep your devices in your room, make sure they are physically turned off along with your Wi-Fi router.
  3. Make sure your phone nowhere near your head/brain for at least an hour before sleep. And also make sure you leave it on airplane mode and out of your room (or at least 6 feet away) during sleep.
  4. In fact, the all-around smartest approach is to unplug all electronics within 6 feet of your bed at night and not have anything on near you while you sleep. Routers emit a powerful EMF cloud—so I suggest installing a simple outlet plug timer that automatically turns it off while you sleep and turns it back on in the morning around your wake-up time. It requires no effort whatsoever, and is an easy way to improve sleep.

2. Sleep In COMPLETE Darkness

Sleep in complete darkness - why am I so tired,

Light is a powerful signal to your brain to be awake. Even a very small amount of light in the room can be enough to disrupt circadian rhythm. The light from outside street lights, night lights, or electronics can easily be enough to impair sleep depth.

You may still sleep a certain number of hours, but your sleep efficiency is lowered when light is entering your room while sleeping.

That means that you and someone else can both sleep for 8 hours, but the person with higher sleep efficiency is getting much more powerful and regenerative sleep per hour of sleep. That’s a key point to grasp – it’s not just about hours in bed, it’s about sleep efficiency!

Having a completely dark room is critical for optimizing sleep efficiency.

The best way to ensure complete blackout is to get rid of all sources of even minor amounts of light in the room and install blackout shades to eliminate light entering from the street.

There should be complete darkness in your bedroom while you sleep at night. This is extremely important.

Even if you think you sleep just fine even though there is some light in your room, I promise you that it is affecting your sleep efficiency and subtly degrading your energy blackout curtains to light-blocking sleep masks to get complete darkness while you sleep.

3. Get Sunlight During The First 30 Minutes After You Wake Up

Ger Sunlight in the first 30 min of the day - why am I so tired,

Bright light (ideally sunlight) is critical to set the circadian rhythm as morning light is the main signal telling your brain when it is day, and when it is not.

For a proper circadian rhythm activation, bright light exposure needs to happen within the first 30 minutes of the day. In my experience, 99% of people do not do this, and they’re walking around with a chronically blunted circadian rhythm because of it (and the 7 consequences of that which we’ve covered in this article).

What you can do to get this exposure within 30 minutes:

  • Get sunlight outdoors (this is the most efficient way, and should be used whenever possible)
  • Stare at the bright sky in the direction of the sun (but don’t look directly at the sun if it’s long past sunrise) for at least 10 minutes. Longer is possible. (Note: You can also do this while on a walk or practicing qi gong or tai chi or yoga or doing an exercise routine of some kind.)
  • If you live in a place where you can’t get morning sun because it’s very overcast and gloomy, or you wake up before sunrise, then use a light therapy box / SAD lamp.

Want The Complete Blueprint For Amazing Sleep and High Energy Levels?​

If you’re serious about getting results in this area of your life (your sleep, and your energy levels), then join our online program, where in 30 days, we’ll show you how to completely re-wire your circadian rhythm for amazing energy levels and deep sleep. 

In that program, we’ll show you the complete set of more than 30 of the most powerful science-backed strategies in existence for sleeping deeper and having more energy than you’ve had since you were a kid. 

So if you’ve been struggling with your sleep or your energy levels, then you simply MUST join our Sleep & Circadian Rhythm Optimization Online Program HERE.)

What optimizing your circadian rhythm with this system can do for you:

  • Fix night-time awakenings 
  • Fix insomnia
  • Dramatically increase your energy
  • Fix trouble falling asleep due to a racing mind
  • Boost your mood and brain function
  • Dramatically decreases your risk of the major killers like heart diseases, diabetes, cancer and more
  • Sleep deeper than you have in years or decades
  • Wake up bursting with energy every morning

Go check out our Sleep & Circadian Rhythm Optimization Program HERE.


[1] WebMd. B12 deficiency.

[2] WebMD. What is iron deficiency anemia?

[3] WebMd. Hypothyroidism.

[4] WebMD. Diabetes.

[5] Eckel-Mahan. K. et. al. (2013) Metabolism and the circadian clock converge.

[6] Holzman, D. C. (2010). What’s in a Color? The Unique Human Health Effects of Blue Light.  Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(1): A22–A27. 

[7] (2015) Screens may be terrible for you, and now we know why

[8] Roenneberg. T. et. al. (2003) Life between clocks: daily temporal patterns of human chronotypes.

[9] Roenneberg. T. et. al. (2003) Life between clocks: daily temporal patterns of human chronotypes.

[10] Medical News Today (2014) How can disrupting circadian rhythms contribute to inflammatory disease?

[11] Cohen. S. et. al. (2009) Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold.

[12] Shanmugam. V. et. al. (2013) Disruption of circadian rhythm increases the risk of cancer, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease

[13] Maury. E. (2010) Circadian Rhythms and Metabolic Syndrome

[14] Obayashi, K. et. al. (2014) Light exposure at night is associated with subclinical carotid atherosclerosis in the general elderly population: The HEIJO-KYO cohort

[15] International Journal of Endocrinology (2015) The Impact of Sleep and Circadian Disturbance on Hormones and Metabolism

[16] Chepesiuk R., (2009) Missing the Dark: Health Effects of Light Pollution

[17] Wulff, K. et. al. (2010) Sleep and circadian rhythm disruption in psychiatric and neurodegenerative disease.

[18] Science Daily (2013) Sleep deprivation linked to aging skin, study suggests

[19] Chamberlain, J. (2014).  Seasonal Variation of Suicide Rates within Alaska: Associations of Age and Sex.

[20] National Sleep Foundation. The complex relationship between sleep, depression, and anxiety. 

[21] The Better Sleep Guide. Insomnia statistics.

[22] CDC. Insufficient sleep is a public health concern.

[23] American Sleep Association. Sleep statistics.

[24] Huffington Post. (2012). Insomnia affects women more than men.

[25] American Sleep Association. Sleep statistics.

[26] American Sleep Association. Sleep statistics..

[27]Kramer, M. (2010). Sleep Loss in Resident Physicians: The Cause of Medical Errors? Fronteirs of Neurology, 1: 128.

[28]NCSDR/NHTSA Expert Panel On Driver Fatigue And Sleepiness. Drowsy driving and automobile crashes.

[29]Sleep disorder foundation. What is insomnia?

[30] CDC. Insufficient sleep is a public health concern.

[31]Sleep disorder foundation. What is insomnia?

[32]Adaes, S. (2016). How modern society taints our circadian rhythms.

[33]Brigham University. (2014). Light-Emitting E-Readers Before Bedtime Can Adversely Impact Sleep.

[34] Racciatti D., et. al. (2001) Chronic fatigue syndrome: circadian rhythm and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis impairment.

[35] Roizenblatt, S. (2011) Sleep disorders and fibromyalgia.

[36] Time (2010) Lack of Sleep Linked With Depression, Weight Gain and Even Death

[37] Salgado-Delgado, R. et. al. (2011) Disruption of Circadian Rhythms: A Crucial Factor in the Etiology of Depression

[38] Tapia-Osorio, A. (2013) Disruption of circadian rhythms due to chronic constant light leads to depressive and anxiety-like behaviors in the rat

[39] Gorwood, P. (2010) Anxiety disorders and circadian rhythms

[40] Marino P.C. Biological Rhythms as a Basis for Mood Disorders

[41] Guilleminault, C. et. al. (2001) Excessive daytime sleepiness: A challenge for the practising neurologist

[42] Haregu, A., (2014) Circadian rhythm characteristics, poor sleep quality, daytime sleepiness and common psychiatric disorders among Thai college students: Sleep and common psychiatric disorders

[43] Alaska Sleep Education Center (2014) 6 Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders that May Be Disrupting Your Sleep

[44] Ohayon, M.M., (2012) Determining the level of sleepiness in the American population and its correlates.

[45] Guilleminault, C. et. al. (2001) Excessive daytime sleepiness: A challenge for the practising neurologist

[46] Guilleminault, C. et. al. (2001) Excessive daytime sleepiness: A challenge for the practising neurologist

[47] Van Dongen, H.P.A., et. al. Circadian Rhythms in Fatigue, Alertness and Performance

[48] Sadowska-Bartosz. I., et. al. (2014) Effect of Antioxidants Supplementation on Aging and Longevity

[49] D’Almeida V., et. al. (1998) Sleep deprivation induces brain region-specific decreases in glutathione levels.

[50]Inoué S., et. al. (1995) Sleep as neuronal detoxification and restitution

[51] Everson CA., et. al. (2005) Antioxidant defense responses to sleep loss and sleep recovery

[52]Venkatramanujam, S. (2011). Melatonin in Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Related Disorders. International Journal  of Alzheimer’s Disease.

[53] Hardeland, R.,(2003). Oxidation of melatonin by carbonate radicals and chemiluminescence emitted during pyrrole ring cleavage. Journal of Pineal Research. 34(1):17-25.

[54] Reiter RJ, et. al. (2003). Melatonin as an antioxidant: biochemical mechanisms and pathophysiological implications in humans. Acta Biochim Pol.50(4):1129-46.

[55] Hardeland R,. (1993). The significance of the metabolism of the neurohormone melatonin: antioxidative protection and formation of bioactive substances. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 17(3):347–357.

[56] Hardeland R,. (1993). The significance of the metabolism of the neurohormone melatonin: antioxidative protection and formation of bioactive substances. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 17(3):347–357.

[57] Hardeland R,. (1993). The significance of the metabolism of the neurohormone melatonin: antioxidative protection and formation of bioactive substances. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 17(3):347–357.

[58] Leon, J, Acuña-Castroviejo, D., et. al. (2011). Melatonin and mitochondrial function. Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry, 11: 221240.

[59] Castroviejo DA, et. al. (2011) Melatonin-mitochondria interplay in health and disease. Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry.

[60] Rodríguez, M.I., Escames, G., and L. C. López. (2008). Improved mitochondrial function and increased life span after chronic melatonin treatment in senescent prone ice. Experimental Gerontology. 43(8):749–756.

[61]Venkatramanujam, S. (2011). Melatonin in Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Related Disorders. International Journal  of Alzheimer’s Disease.

[62] Andres, A. (2015). A time to reap, a time to sow: Mitophagy and biogenesis in cardiac pathophysiology. Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology, 78: 62-72

[63] Ma, D. et. al. (2012). Circadian autophagy rhythm: a link between clock and metabolism? Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, 23: 319-325

[64]Godley, B. F. (2005). Blue light induces mitochondrial DNA damage and free radical production in epithelial cells. Journal of Biology and Chemistry, 280(22): 21061-6.

[65] Gomes AP, Price NL, Ling AJ, et al. (2013) Declining NAD(+) induces a pseudohypoxic state disrupting nuclear-mitochondrial communication during aging. Cell. 2013 Dec 19;155(7):1624-38.

[66] Gomes AP, Price NL, Ling AJ, et al. (2013) Declining NAD(+) induces a pseudohypoxic state disrupting nuclear-mitochondrial communication during aging. Cell. 2013 Dec 19;155(7):1624-38.

[67] Cantó. C., (2015) NAD+ metabolism and the control of energy homeostasis – a balancing act between mitochondria and the nucleus

[68] Gallí M, Van Gool F, Leo O. (2011) Sirtuins and inflammation: Friends or foes? Biochem Pharmacol.

[69] Gomes AP, Price NL, Ling AJ, et al. (2013) Declining NAD(+) induces a pseudohypoxic state disrupting nuclear-mitochondrial communication during aging. Cell. 2013 Dec 19;155(7):1624-38.

[70] Li X, Kazgan N. (2011) Mammalian sirtuins and energy metabolism. 

[71] Chang HC, Guarente L. (2014) SIRT1 and other sirtuins in metabolism. Trends Endocrinol Metab.

[72] Gomes AP, Price NL, Ling AJ, et al. (2013) Declining NAD(+) induces a pseudohypoxic state disrupting nuclear-mitochondrial communication during aging. Cell. 2013 Dec 19;155(7):1624-38.

[73] Gong B., et. al. (2013) Nicotinamide riboside restores cognition through an upregulation of proliferator-activated receptor-γ coactivator 1α regulated β-secretase 1 degradation and mitochondrial gene expression in Alzheimer’s mouse models.

[74] Tullius S.G., et. al. (2014) NAD+ protects against EAE by regulating CD4+ T-cell differentiation

[75] Science Daily (2014) New pathway discovered regulating autoimmune diseases

[76] Cantó. C., (2015) NAD+ metabolism and the control of energy homeostasis – a balancing act between mitochondria and the nucleus

[77] Satoh MS, Poirier GG, Lindahl T. (1993) NAD(+)-dependent repair of damaged DNA by human cell extracts. J Biol Chem.

[78] Houtkooper RH., (2012) Exploring the therapeutic space around NAD+.

[79] He Y., et. al. (2016) Circadian rhythm of autophagy proteins in hippocampus is blunted by sleep fragmentation.

[80] Di Ma., et. al. (2012) Circadian autophagy rhythm: a link between clock and metabolism?

[81] International Journal of Endocrinology (2015) The Impact of Sleep and Circadian Disturbance on Hormones and Metabolism

[82] Davies JF., et. al. (2011) Leptin regulates energy balance and motivation through action at distinct neural circuits.

[83]Spiegel, K., et. al. (2004). Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels: elevated ghrelin levels and increased hunger and appetite. Annals of Internal Medicine, 141: 846-850.

[84] NPR. Sleep Munchies: Why It’s Harder To Resist Snacks When We’re Tired.:

[85]Ahima, R. S. (2008). Brain regulation of appetite and satiety. Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinical, 37(4): 811-823.

[86] Neuroscience News, Sleep Loss Boosts Hunger and Unhealthy Food Choices

[87] He F., et. al. (2015) Habitual sleep variability, not sleep duration, is associated with caloric intake in adolescents

[88] Laposky AD., et. al. (2008) Sleep and circadian rhythms: Key components in the regulation of energy metabolism

[89] Laposky AD., et. al. (2008) Sleep and circadian rhythms: Key components in the regulation of energy metabolism

[90] International Journal of Endocrinology (2015) The Impact of Sleep and Circadian Disturbance on Hormones and Metabolism

[91]Cauter, E. V. (2005). The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Hormones and Metabolism. Medscape Neurology, 7(1).

[92]Stanford News Service. (1996). Stanford researchers suggest how sleep re-charges the brain

[93]Benington, J. H. and C. Heller. Restoration of brain energy metabolism as the function of sleep. Progress in Neurobiology

[94]Stanford News Service. (1996). Stanford researchers suggest how sleep re-charges the brain

[95]Stanford News Service. (1996). Stanford researchers suggest how sleep re-charges the brain

[96] Dworak M, et al. (2011) Delta oscillations induced by ketamine increase energy levels in sleep-wake related brain regions.

[97] Prigeon R.L., et. al.  (1995). Changes in insulin sensitivity, glucose effectiveness, and B-cell function in regularly exercising subjects. Metabolism44:1259-1263. 

[98] The Scientist, Circadian Clock Controls Sugar Metabolism

[99] Kalsbeek A., et. al. (2014) Circadian control of glucose metabolism

[100] Fronken LK., et. al. (2014) The Effects of Light at Night on Circadian Clocks and Metabolism

[101] The Scientist, Circadian Clock Controls Sugar Metabolism

[102] Scientific American Why Sleep Disorders May Precede Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s

[103] Scientific American Why Sleep Disorders May Precede Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s

[104] Scientific American Why Sleep Disorders May Precede Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s

[105] Scientific American Why Sleep Disorders May Precede Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s

[106] Musiek ES., et. al. (2013) Circadian clock proteins regulate neuronal redox homeostasis and neurodegeneration.

[107]Scientific American Why Sleep Disorders May Precede Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s

[108]Arnetz, B. B. et. al. Effects from 884 MHz mobile phone radiofrequency on brain electrophysiology, sleep, cognition, and well-being.

[109]Arnetz, B. B. et. al. Effects from 884 MHz mobile phone radiofrequency on brain electrophysiology, sleep, cognition, and well-being.

[110] National Sleep Foundation (2014) National sleep foundation 2014 sleep in America poll finds children sleep better when parents establish rules, limit technology and set a good example

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest
Medically Reviewed ByEvan Hirsch, M.D.

Leave a comment

Scroll to Top