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Reset Your Body Clock for Better Brain Health

Feeling mentally foggy? Your circadian rhythm may be out of sync

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    Sleep on It

    En español | “Early to bed, early to rise” may sound like sage advice, but if your circadian rhythm — aka your body clock — gets out of whack, it can make you sleepy when you should be alert and wakeful when you should be sleeping. Disrupted sleep patterns can also lead to poor memory, depression and even migraine headaches. Here are nine ways to reset your body clock.

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    Step Into the Sunshine

    Morning sunshine is an on-switch for your body clock and sends a strong wakening signal to your brain. Our circadian rhythm isn’t exactly 24 hours — it’s actually off by as much as half an hour  — so morning light resets the clock each day. If you can’t get outside, open the blinds and turn up the lights, advises Jeanne Duffy, a neuroscientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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    Go Online in the Morning

    Blue light from electronic devices such as computer monitors delivers a powerful jump-start to your brain. By going online in the morning, you take advantage of your natural alertness early in the day and gain an extra mental edge. Blue light exposure proved even more powerful than caffeine in boosting reaction times on cognitive and motor tests, according to a 2013 Finnish study. Blue-light therapy also improved mood in a study of 89 older adults with major depression.

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    Sync Your Schedule With Your Body Clock

    Did you know there is a “best” time to memorize something (in the morning) and a different “best” time to be creative (late in the day)? Or that blood pressure medicine works best when taken at night — lowering your risk of stroke and protecting your brain? Fitting your daily activities around your body’s natural rhythm can make you more productive and healthy, says Michael Breus, sleep specialist and author of The Power of When, due out in September.

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    Avoid Fatty Foods

    Eating too much bacon, fried chicken and pizza could make you sleepy and sluggish. Our eating patterns — and digestive system — are part of our body clock, and a high-fat diet can disrupt the rhythm. In an Australian study of 1,815 men between the ages of 35 and 80, those eating a high-fat diet reported more daytime sleepiness, regardless of body-mass index. Switching to a low-fat diet can reverse the effect.

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    Cut Out Coffee by Midday

    A coffee buzz feels good in the morning and makes you more alert, but late in the day it may overpower your body clock. Caffeine lingers in your system for eight to 14 hours. Only drink coffee in the afternoon or evening if you need to stay up late or if you are trying to reset your body clock to a later bedtime.

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    Treat Your Cataracts

    The cloudy cataracts we often get as we age may be blocking the blue light you need to signal your wake-sleep cycle — and dimming your alertness.  When cataract surgery removes a yellowed lens, your circadian rhythm gets a boost. Studies show that cataract surgery has brain benefits, too, improving reaction time on cognitive tests and reducing daytime sleepiness.

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    Dim the Lights at Night

    Darkness is your brain’s off-switch. Late evening light keeps you awake — even if it’s the glow from a television or electronic tablet. A few minutes of bright light at bedtime or in the middle of the night (such as turning on the bathroom light) sends the wrong signal to your brain. The American Medical Association also warns about sleep disruption from high-intensity LED street lights. Shut them out with light-blocking curtains or blinds.

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    Consider a Dose of Melatonin

    The sleep-inducing hormone melatonin provides another important trigger for your body clock. As we age, we make less melatonin, and some medicines, such as beta-blockers, cut levels even further. A small bedtime dose (about 0.3 mg) gives your body clock the cue it needs. But don’t go overboard — large doses of the supplement may make you feel sleepy during the day. Talk to your doctor before taking melatonin.

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    Crank Up the Wattage

    If your daily rhythm is really out of whack, you need a stronger reset. Older adults are more likely to have a circadian rhythm condition called advanced sleep phase disorder, which causes very early bedtime and waking. Block light in the morning with blackout shades or drapes and keep the lights on at night between 7 and 9 p.m.

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