What Are the Signs And Symptoms Of A Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder?

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 06/24/2022

Did you know that every one of us has an ‘internal clock’ that dictates a wide variety of the functions and processes we experience daily? It’s called our circadian rhythm, and it’s constantly working in the background throughout the day. 

While it’s not something we can physically see, the circadian rhythm plays an important role in how we behave, think, feel, and act daily. Without a healthy circadian rhythm, our body wouldn’t know when to sleep and when to wake, which leads to a wide range of difficulties in life.

As important as it is to our day-to-day life, millions of Americans suffer from complications with their circadian rhythm and suffer greatly as a result -- especially when trying to receive the proper amount, timing, and quality of sleep each night.

If this sounds like you, there’s a chance you’re suffering from a circadian rhythm sleep disorder and need to seek professional help. Don’t worry; we’re going to break down everything you need to know about circadian rhythm sleep disorders below!

So, what is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder?

circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorder is diagnosed when someone experiences a change in their circadian rhythm, resulting in a misaligned ‘internal clock’ and sleep-wake cycle. People with this disorder either have difficulty falling asleep or waking up at the right time.

The body’s circadian rhythm uses cues and responses from the outside environment to dictate its 24-hour cycle. For example, the body releases a chemical called melatonin when exposed to darkness. This chemical is responsible for sleepiness.

The body also slows the release of melatonin and spurs other chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine) when exposed to light, signaling the body to wake up.

As a result, those living with a circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorder are often tired during the day and awake throughout the night. Not to anyone’s surprise, this can have a wide range of negative effects on the body and mind, especially when repeated every single day.

Some circadian rhythm sleep disorders are short-term and are caused by changes in the individual’s work schedule, traveling schedule, or an overall change to their sleep schedule (staying up late to go out with friends). With that being said, they can also be long-term and caused by a medical condition, another sleep disorder (such as insomnia), your age, or genetics.

Anyone suffering from a circadian rhythm sleep disorder needs to seek professional help immediately. Not only do they diagnose the disorder, but they work tirelessly to find the root cause of the disorder so you receive the right treatment moving forward.

What Are the Common Signs and Symptoms?

One of the most beneficial things you can do when suffering from a circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorder is to detect it as early as possible. The earlier the disorder is detected in the individual, the sooner they can receive help, and the less they risk the disorder worsening over time.

Of course, you can’t detect a circadian rhythm sleep disorder unless you know what signs and symptoms to look out for. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent warning signs that you or a loved one are suffering from a circadian rhythm sleep disorder:

  • An extreme and repeated difficulty falling asleep or waking up at the desired time.
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness that either leads to poor daily performance or frequent naps.
  • Feeling exhausted or fatigued at the wrong times throughout the day.
  • Lack of energy, motivation, and alertness throughout the day (lethargy)
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating on the task-at-hand, leading to frustration throughout the day.
  • Uncontrollable emotions and constant mood swings.
  • Headaches, aches, and pains from not receiving the proper sleep quality each night (your body’s opportunity to restore itself).
  • Impaired judgments cause you to make bad decisions throughout the day, despite not realizing it.

To many people, these signs and symptoms result from choosing to stay up late each night -- opposed to receiving the proper amount of sleep. While it’s still a cause for concern and needs to be dealt with properly, it’s not always considered a circadian rhythm sleep disorder because it’s the individual’s choice to stay up late.

To be considered a disorder, the individual needs to have a misaligned circadian rhythm, which leads to the inability to sleep properly. Despite the effort, they exert when trying to fall asleep or wake up at the right time, it’s just too difficult and starts to affect their day-to-day life.

Are There Any Complications?

We’ve mentioned how a circadian rhythm sleep disorder makes it difficult to fall asleep or wake up at the right time, but we haven’t mentioned what that does to the body and mind when repeated each day. As you can imagine, this is where the disorder can go from bad to worse.

Let’s take a look at some of the complications associated with this disorder -- especially when not treated properly:

  • Not only can a circadian rhythm sleep disorder lead to other sleep disorders, but it can worsen sleep disorders the individual already suffers from (insomnia, sleep apnea, etc.).
  • Issues with the digestive system and metabolism, which utilize the circadian rhythm when sending signals throughout the body each day.
  • Cardiovascular disease and increased risk of stroke.
  • Mood and behavioral disorders, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, and excessive irritability.
  • Complications to the body’s internal clock can impact and disrupt the hormone cycle, leading to fertility and reproductive issues.
  • A poor immune system leads to unregulated inflammation, an increased risk of infection, and difficulty recovering from an injury or illness.

Keep in mind, these complications could be experienced as symptoms if the individual has suffered from the disorder long enough. They’re often used to determine the severity of the circadian rhythm sleep disorder and see how it affects the individual’s life.

Different Types Of Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders

When diagnosing a circadian rhythm sleep disorder caused by internal desynchronization, it’s important to note the subtype the individual is suffering from. There are six major subtypes, and they each require different treatment approaches.

Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent circadian rhythm sleep disorders and what they mean for the body or mind:

  1. Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase - when the individual repeatedly falls asleep two or more hours after their desired bedtime.
  2. Advanced Sleep-Wake Phase -when the individual repeatedly falls asleep two or more hours before their desired bedtime.
  3. Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake -when the individual has an internal clock isn’t in-tune with the 24-hour cycle. The sleep cycle continues to delay more and more each night.
  4. Irregular Sleep-Wake -when the individual stays awake and sleeps for short periods of time. These people often nap rather than sleep.
  5. Jet Lag -when the individual’s internal clock is misaligned with the local time zone. This generally happens when traveling across different time zones.
  6. Shift Work -when the individual’s typical sleep-wake cycle is disturbed by their work schedule. This is often experienced in individuals working the graveyard shift.

To determine which subtype the individual is suffering from, healthcare professionals often require them to fill out a sleep journal. They’ll also ask the individual a series of questions to better understand the symptoms they’re suffering from and their daily routine -- if there is one.

When more information or data is needed, a sleep study technologist may step in to monitor the individual’s sleeping patterns. During a sleep study, the individual is hooked up to several devices and electrodes that monitor brain and body activity.

After a thorough analysis of the data and a potential nap study (if needed), the healthcare professional will have a much better idea of what’s going on. Of course, that means a much more accurate diagnosis.

Living With A Circadian Rhythm Disorder

Living with a circadian rhythm disorder can be stressful, frustrating, painful, and unfulfillment. It’s a horrible way to live your life and demands immediate assistance. With that being said, there’s always help and always someone ready to guide you towards a healthier life.

Treatments for circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders include lifestyle and behavioral changes, light therapy, and medication (melatonin supplements). Your healthcare professional will recommend the right type of treatment for your specific subtype(s).

To ensure the treatment is as effective as possible, it’s important to listen to your doctor and take their recommendations seriously. Whether they suggest light therapy, lifestyle changes, healthier habits, or supplement usage, you must maintain the treatment plan they set for you.

You’ll also want to maintain consistent follow-ups to monitor your progress. This allows the doctor to change the treatment plan as needed and ensure the rest of your health is progressing well. As always, you should let your doctor know of any mind or body changes you’re experiencing throughout the day.

Mind Diagnostics Pledges To Help

At Mind Diagnostics, we understand how important your circadian rhythm is to leading a healthy and balanced life. Your mind and body rely on it to fuel their everyday functions, responsibilities, and processes involved.

That’s why we stay dedicated to making sure everyone is given the proper tools and resources when monitoring their circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle.

With our comprehensive online sleep disorder test, you can learn your risk level for developing (or already having) a circadian rhythm sleep disorder -- or if the symptoms are associated with another sleep disorder. Of course, we’ll also help you find the help you need to get better.

Contact us today to learn more about our mission to defeat the mental health stigmas we’re all exposed to each and every day!