Does fasting to hack your sleep cycle actually work?
April 24, 2013 6:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm sick of going to sleep at 8am and waking up at 2pm due to a messed-up sleep cycle. I read/saw today that you can re-set your sleep cycle in just one day by fasting for 12-16 hours before the time you want to wake up. Has anyone tried this? Does it actually work?

Long story, I have endemetriosis and have been sleeping in three two-hour shifts every day for the past month. I have strong painkillers but they only work for half the time they're supposed to and the pain wakes me. Doc just put me on high-progesterone BC and now I can sleep in six hour blocks. Yay! Unfortunately my cycle is all out of whack now and I sleep at crazy times. This means I don't go to bed with my husband (not good for relationship sex/intimacy-wise) and I wake up mid afternoon, so I can't get stuff done I want to. Plus, I'm missing out on beautiful spring days. More importantly, my next work project starts in two weeks and I have to start at 9am every day. I was reading about fasting as a way to reset circadian rhythms, but the researchers were talking about effects on bats. How effective is it for people? Have you ever tried it? Do you have any other awesome sleep tips you could share? I'm a night owl at the best of times but I just want things to go back to normal so I don't have to sit up all night watching TV shows with my headphones on and reading silently. Thanks to anyone who has any advice!
posted by everydayanewday to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I used to get into these kinds of cycles in grad school for no good reason. I always found the fastest way to get back on track was to force myself to stay awake the next time daylight rolled around, no matter what (usually, no matter that I'd been up all night already because the previous day I slept 9 am till 6 pm). That day would suck because I'd be sooooo tired, but I'd be ready for bed at 8pm and be exhausted enough to sleep well.

I do not claim that this put me back on good sleep habits - I am also a natural night owl - but it worked in the short term. And I didn't have any health issues or take any sleep-affecting drugs at the time, so also YMMV-factors
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:01 PM on April 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

The fasting trick worked for me when I went to Poland and wanted to fast adjust.

But: if you stay up late with an LCD or blue lighting, that's kind of the problem.
posted by rr at 7:03 PM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

There was a considerable period of time in my life when I ate one irregularly-timed meal a day, effectively constantly fasting for 24 hours. If it was supposed to do something good for my sleep cycle, it did not. Skipping a night's sleep, as suggested above (preferably before a day where you don't have a lot going on) did the trick, though.

I also take melatonin to regulate my sleep schedule because I've never not had to fight myself to go to sleep and fight myself to wake up. It's not a sleeping pill; it just lets you fade into sleep easier.
posted by griphus at 7:05 PM on April 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Uh, obviously check with your doctor before taking any kind of supplements on top of your medication, though.
posted by griphus at 7:06 PM on April 24, 2013

So, my lab studies this, but.... in zebrafish.

Here's what I can tell you:

1. When our fish are fasted for 18-24 hours, they show marked, significant increase in clock gene expression. Clock genes are responsible for maintaining the cell-autonomous feedback loops that produce circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is certainly a factor in the sleep cycle, along with exogenous "Zeitgebers" ("time givers"), most notably daylight. We aren't yet able to say if our zebrafishes' "sleep cycle" is altered, since monitoring zebrafish sleep isn't actually all that easy, but it wouldn't be surprising. Certainly we can say that circadian gene expression is markedly changed by fasting in zebrafish.

2. There's some evidence for this in humans. See this non-scientific article.

3. After talking about this strategy with a friend, he tried a 16-hour fast before a trip from the UK to New Zealand. He has made the trip many, many times and generally has terrible jet lag; he said he thinks the fasting made a difference.

4. My PI, who obviously knows a great deal about this sort of thing, being an expert in circadian rhythms, definitely recommends melatonin for getting to sleep. She actually developed human dosing guidelines a few years back.

5. I have been fasting 1-2 days a week for about 9 months. I didn't have any sleep problems to start with, and I certainly didn't develop any, so I can tell you that at least for me, it didn't hurt!
posted by Cygnet at 7:13 PM on April 24, 2013 [19 favorites]

She actually developed human dosing guidelines a few years back.

Are these available anywhere?
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:23 PM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

IANAD, but I do have decades of military and shift work experience involving sleep deprivation and disruption. Personally, the two things that best help reset my sleep patterns are to try to stay awake during the day, as mentioned by others, and also to try to get some sort of safe, moderate physical activity outdoors where the sun (or the clouds) can hit my face. Your body has a thousand subtle triggers that will respond to the legacy of countless generations who lived more in the outdoors than we do now. The combination of wind, temperature, light and a host of other cues will all work together to get things back on track. I realize you may have some health limits on what you can do, and you certainly need to follow those, but a walk outside, even if it is just ten minutes leaning on your husband's arm the whole time, will do you nothing but good. Also talk to your doctor to see if any of the medications you are on might be affecting your sleep. Each body reacts differently. Personally, I found that starting a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) changed my ability to fall asleep quickly-- for the first time in my life I actually have trouble getting to sleep. Talk to a doctor if you have any concerns about fasting, but unless you are diabetic or hypoglycemic a brief fast (definitely not to exceed 24 hours) is generally considered fine. Best of luck with your problems, and I hope you will soon be counting sheep in the land of Nod!
posted by seasparrow at 7:25 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Erk, I missed something here - what is it about LCD/ blue lighting that's bad for sleep?
posted by everydayanewday at 7:46 PM on April 24, 2013

The light from TVs, computer screens, etc. is similar to the light of the sun, essentially telling your body "it's light out, no need to sleep!". I don't know what could be done about the TV but for computers and smart phones you can use the flux app to adjust the color of your screen at night.
posted by fox problems at 8:01 PM on April 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

Blue light inhibits your brain's secretion of melatonin. Computer screens are bad for sleep.

I've got problems with sleep cycles, and the fasting thing can work. I've done 16 hour fasts (last 8 hours in the dark whether I was sleeping or not) ending at the time I want to wake up, and it can help reset things, but you have to work hard to maintain it if there is nothing external to keep you on schedule.
posted by monopas at 8:02 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding the all-nighter and sleeping on time the next day.

In addition, I find that having smallish meals at regular times, and exercise helps 'stabilize' my schedule. Regular water intake is important. On the other hand, if I eat irregularly or eat one large meal a day (which sometimes, unfortunately, happens), I'm more likely to stay up super late. YMMV.
posted by suedehead at 8:59 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

But: if you stay up late with an LCD or blue lighting, that's kind of the problem.

You can turn down the blue pixels:
Redshift - for linux/ windows
f.lux - for linux/windows/osx/iDevices

Orange Goggles - for iBalls
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:09 PM on April 24, 2013 [8 favorites]

I've not had a regular eating pattern for the last 5 years or more. That said, I've never noticed fasting making it easier to wake or sleep, and if anything I tended to sleep more when I hadn't eaten enough.

Things that have helped me have a more regular sleeping pattern include exercise, smaller more frequent meals, melatonin, flux/no blue light late at night, and simply not letting myself oversleep.

When my sleeping pattern was seriously messed up, staying up all day aided by caffeine and similar stimulants as a reset, going to bed at a reasonable time AND waking up at a reasonable time worked quite well. If I woke up earlier, I stayed up and didn't go to bed until bedtime again.

Alternatively, if I was only off by a few hours, forcing myself to wake at a reasonable time (again with caffeine and similar) even if I'd only gotten 2 hours sleep would often work.

Should you not be a coffee drinker, they do also have caffeine wake-you-up pills. And melatonin is good for sleeping.
posted by Ashlyth at 9:42 PM on April 24, 2013

Melatonin is perfect for moving your sleep-wake cycles. We use it in Intensive Care Units to regulate sleep in sick, elderly patients. It is the only thing reasonably prescribed for jet lag. It is safe and sane. Buy whatever dose is cheapest, and take it somewhere between sunset/bedtime. If it isn't working when you take it, take it earlier.
posted by sanderman at 1:28 AM on April 25, 2013

Here is a link to a paper that tested a few doses and dose-timing of melatonin.
posted by Cygnet at 3:43 AM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I did it! (with the help of melatonin 90 mins before sleep - it worked! Thank GODDD. And thank you everybody for all your answers. Love Mefi!
posted by everydayanewday at 10:42 AM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used the fasting method on my 2nd business trip from East Coast USA to the Netherlands, and it appeared to work very well for me. One data point versus one control point.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:53 PM on April 28, 2013

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