How Circadian Rhythms Influence Autoimmune Disease

Last updated: January 2023

Circadian rhythms are 24-hour patterns generated by people's internal body clocks. These patterns respond to the environment, so they can change. Your circadian rhythms help tell you when to go to bed and when to wake up according to the light-dark cycle.1

Circadian rhythms regulate various functions in the body. These functions include:1

  • Hormone (melatonin) release
  • Eating habits
  • Digestion
  • Body temperature

Certain triggers can disrupt your circadian rhythms. Triggers can include being jet-lagged or changing shifts at work. Not keeping a regular sleep schedule can confuse your internal clock. Even using electronic devices at night can interrupt your circadian rhythms.2

The link between autoimmune diseases and circadian rhythms

Getting a good night's sleep on a regular basis helps prevent you from getting sick. When you are sleep-deprived, your defenses are down. This makes it harder for your body to fight off infections.3

Just as you have your circadian rhythms, so do the cells of your immune system. If your sleep pattern is disrupted regularly, so is your disease resistance. Studies have shown that circadian rhythms control many aspects of your immune system. The reverse is also true.4

Research suggests that people whose circadian rhythms are off may be more likely to develop autoimmune diseases. Examples of these diseases are:4

  • Lupus
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Axial spondyloarthritis

Another study concluded that people's immune systems are more active at times when they are more likely to encounter bacteria or viruses. Then, their immune systems rest while they are at rest. So, their immune systems are not constantly fighting off invaders. This idea could explain why people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) feel their worst symptoms in the morning. It could also explain why RA medicines can curb flare-ups when they are taken in the morning hours.4,5

These findings tell us that your immune system may be programmed to respond at different times within your circadian rhythm. Further study could lead to other ways to treat and even prevent autoimmune diseases.5

Tips for a good night's sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep can be challenging for many people. This may be because of chronic pain, a demanding schedule, or another stressor. If you are struggling to get restful sleep, here are some tips you may want to try.6

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time, even on the weekends or while on vacation.
  • Establish a relaxing routine. Go something that is calming before going to bed to help you wind down.
  • Build exercise into your daily routine. It may help you sleep better.
  • Invest in a mattress and pillows that are comfortable and supportive.
  • Make your bedroom cool, quiet, and dark.
  • Do not drink caffeine in the afternoon hours.
  • Avoid alcohol and nicotine. A glass of wine or a cocktail may make you feel sleepy at first, but you are likely to wake up later in the night.
  • Do not eat 2 to 3 hours before bedtime.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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