Low back pain is one of the most common health issues that people experience worldwide. It affects people of all ages and can have a significant impact on quality of life. While there are many factors that can contribute to low back pain, one important aspect to consider is the role of our circadian rhythms.
What Are Circadian Rhythms?
Circadian rhythms are the natural, internal processes that regulate the sleep-wake cycle in our bodies. Circadian rhythms are basically our physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. They often work according to the day/night schedule that our bodies are designed to follow.
How Do Circadian Rhythms Work?
Circadian rhythms are regulated by a small group of cells in the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) which acts as the principal circadian clock in the brain.
The SCN receives signals from the eyes about our body's exposure to light (think when we see the sun first thing in the morning) and uses this information to regulate the release of hormones and other chemicals that influence our sleep-wake cycle.
The Role Of Melatonin In Circadian Rhythms
One of the key hormones that is affected by our circadian rhythms is melatonin - an important hormone that plays a critical role in helping us fall asleep and stay asleep.
Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the pineal gland in the brain and helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle.
When it starts to get dark, the pineal gland gets the message to start making melatonin, and when the sun comes up again the light lets the pineal gland know that it can stop making melatonin. That is why melatonin levels are generally highest at night and lowest during the day.
This process is how our bodies synchronize our sleep-wake cycles with night time and day time, and melatonin is key in helping our bodies transition to sleep.
The Role Of Cortisol In Circadian Rhythms
Another hormone that is affected by our circadian rhythms is cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone that is produced by the adrenal gland and helps to regulate our body's response to stress.
Cortisol levels are highest in the morning and lowest at night, and it is this hormone that plays a critical role in helping us to wake up and feel alert during the day.
How Circadian Rhythm Disruption Can Cause Low Back Pain
When our circadian rhythms are disrupted, our body's natural balance of hormones and chemicals is thrown off. This can lead to a number of health issues, including low back pain.
Studies have shown that people who have disrupted circadian rhythms, such as shift workers, travelers with jet lag, or people who struggle with insomnia, are more likely to experience low back pain.
Melatonin Levels And Back Pain
One of the ways that circadian rhythms can affect low back pain is through the regulation of melatonin and cortisol levels. Melatonin plays a critical role in helping our muscles relax and, when melatonin levels are low, our muscles are more likely to tense up and feel sore.
Cortisol Levels And Back Pain
Similarly, cortisol plays a critical role in helping our bodies respond to stress, and when cortisol levels are high, our bodies are more likely to be in a state of chronic stress and tension which has been shown to increase our sensitivity to pain, as well as causing tense muscles that are more prone to injury.
Circadian Disruption And Inflammation
Another way that circadian rhythms can affect low back pain is through the regulation of inflammation. Inflammation is a natural response to injury or infection, but when it becomes chronic, it can lead to a number of health issues, including low back pain.
Research has found that the circadian system has an impact on a large number of different cellular processes. For example, the circadian system affects our cellular metabolism, changes in our cells (epigenetic modification), our gut microbiome, immune responses, and even how our brains work.
Our immune systems protect us from things like infections or injuries - like the strains and sprains associated with low back pain. When our immune systems are weakened - through things like circadian rhythm disruption - it can lead to higher levels of inflammation in our bodies, and increased conditions like low back pain.
How Can We Fix Our Circadian Rhythms?
There are several things that we can do to help regulate our circadian rhythms and reduce the risk of low back pain. Here are some easy ways that you can better regulate your circadian rhythm:
1. Get Good Sleep To Help Low Back Pain
One of the best, and maybe the easiest thing you can do to regulate your circadian rhythm is to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
We know - this might sound impossible, especially if all you want to do on the weekend is stay up late bingeing the latest Netflix releases and then sleeping in until noon.
Unfortunately you can’t actually binge your sleep like you can a Netflix series, so when you are sleep deprived, one good lie-in won’t fix the damage that has been done.
A regular sleep schedule is what helps our bodies know when to start expecting that it is time to go to sleep, and when it is time to wake up. That’s why some people get to the stage when their bodies wake them up at the same time every day even without an alarm clock.
A regular sleep schedule helps our bodies to regulate the release of hormones and chemicals in our bodies and help to keep our circadian rhythms in sync.
2. Use Natural Light To Fight Low Back Pain
Another way to help regulate our circadian rhythms is to expose ourselves to natural light during the day. Natural light helps to regulate the release of hormones and chemicals in our bodies and keeps our circadian rhythms in sync. This can be done by spending time outside during the day, or by using a light box.
A light box is a special type of light fixture that gives off a soft, steady light. They generate a standard wavelength of light and generally have an intensity of around 10,000 lux, the standard lux that is required to be an effective treatment for conditions like sleep problems, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and depression.
3. Stress Management
Finally, it is important to reduce stress and manage chronic pain. Stress can disrupt our circadian rhythms and lead to an increase in inflammation which leads to things like chronic low back pain.
To reduce stress and manage chronic pain, there are several things you can do that don’t require medication. Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deep breathing, meditation, and yoga are all ways that you can try and manage stress levels in the body.
Circadian rhythms play a critical role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle and hormones in our bodies. When our circadian rhythms are disrupted a number of health issues can occur, like inflammation, and low back pain that often accompanies inflammation.
Having poor sleep schedules, staying up too late, using digital screens before bed, or even traveling, are all things that can interfere with our circadian rhythms. The good news is that there are things we can do to help get our circadian rhythms back on track - even if you are in a job that requires night shift work (see our blog on how your night shift job could be making your low back pain worse).
By taking the time to create good sleep hygiene habits, like sleeping in a darkened room, creating a regular sleep schedule, avoiding blue light a couple of hours before bed, and reducing stress levels, we can get our circadian rhythms back on track and reduce inflammation and chronic low back pain.