Treating Circadian Rhythm Disorders

Control room at the UAB Sleep/Wake Disorders Center
Rest for the weary: Scientists at UAB's Sleep/Wake Disorders Center treat disorders such as delayed sleep phase and advance sleep phase with special glasses, melatonin, and other therapies.

Imbalances in circadian rhythms can cause serious trouble, says Susan Harding, M.D., director of UAB’s Sleep/Wake Disorders Center, which treats several circadian sleep disorders. The most common are delayed sleep phase and advance sleep phase, Harding says.

People who experience delayed sleep phase typically have trouble falling asleep before 2:00 a.m. and extreme difficulty waking up and functioning early in the morning. “This is a disorder more likely to occur in adolescents and young adults, and it can be made worse by exposing yourself to light at night, such as watching television or playing on the computer,” Harding says. “Those emit a lot of blue light, and that’s what the body uses to re-synch itself every morning.”

Delayed sleep phase is usually treated with bright light early in the morning and avoiding light after 4:00 p.m. Often this is achieved with special glasses. Another treatment involves taking melatonin, which helps regulate sleep and wake cycles, at certain times of the day—including a few hours before a scheduled bedtime.

Advance sleep phase is the opposite of its sister condition. It mostly affects people age 70 and older, who tend to go to bed and wake up earlier than normal. “Their clock is shorter, so they go to bed at 8:00 p.m. and wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.,” Harding says. “Many people with this disorder complain about wanting to stay up longer, usually to participate in social activities, but they can’t.” Treatments include use of bright blue light at specific times of the day.

Most circadian rhythm sleep disorders are genetically determined, Harding notes. But many therapies are available, and diagnosis often can be made in a single visit with the help of sleep diaries done beforehand, she says. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, call (205) 930-7114.

 

Back to main article

Back to Top