Circadian pacemaker interferes with sleep onset at specific times each day: role in insomnia

Am J Physiol. 1987 Jul;253(1 Pt 2):R172-8. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.1987.253.1.R172.


The human circadian pacemaker modulates our desire and ability to fall asleep at different times of day. To study this circadian component of sleep tendency, we have analyzed the sleep-wake patterns recorded from 15 free-running subjects in whom the sleep-wake cycle spontaneously desynchronized from the circadian rhythm of body temperature. The analysis indicates that the distribution of sleep onsets during free run is bimodal, with one peak at the temperature trough and, contrary to previous reports, a second peak 9-10 h later. Furthermore, there are two consistent zones in the circadian temperature cycle during which normal subjects rarely fall asleep. We hypothesize that this bimodal rhythm of sleep tendency, revealed under free-running conditions, maintains the same fixed phase relation to the circadian temperature cycle during 24-h entrainment. This would imply that normally entrained individuals should experience a peak of sleep tendency in the midafternoon and a zone of minimal sleep tendency approximately 1-3 h before habitual bedtime. Our temporal isolation data thereby account quantitatively for the timing of the afternoon siesta and suggest that malfunctions of the phasing of the circadian pacemaker may underlie the insomnia associated with sleep-scheduling disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Chronobiology Phenomena
  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Humans
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Time Factors
  • Wakefulness / physiology