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Fischer, Dorothee; Vetter, Celine; Roenneberg, Till (2016): A novel method to visualise and quantify circadian misalignment. In: Scientific Reports, Vol. 6, 38601


The circadian clock governs virtually all processes in the human body, including sleep-wake behaviour. Circadian misalignment describes the off-set between sleep-wake cycles and clock-regulated physiology. This strain is predominantly caused by external (societal) demands including shift work, early school start times and fast travels across time zones. Sleeping at the 'wrong' internal time can jeopardise health and safety, and we therefore need a good quantification of this phenomenon. Here, we propose a novel method to quantify the mistiming of sleep-wake rhythms and demonstrate its versatility in day workers and shift workers. Based on a single time series, our Composite Phase Deviation method unveils distinct, subject-and schedule-specific geometries ('islands and pancakes') that illustrate how modern work times interfere with sleep. With increasing levels of circadian strain, the resulting shapes change systematically from small, connected forms to large and fragmented patterns. Our method shows good congruence with published measures of circadian misalignment (i.e., Inter-daily Stability and 'Behavioural Entrainment'), but offers added value as to its requirements, e.g., being computable for sleep logs and questionnaires. Composite Phase Deviations will help to understand the mechanisms that link 'living against the clock' with health and disease on an individual basis.