Circadian rhythms, informally referred to as our internal body clock, have recently been a hot topic in both science and media. Our body clock is controlled by our brain, using light to approximately work around a 24 hour cycle.
This internal clock is responsible for triggering the secretion of specific hormones in our bloodstream making us more alert, hungry or sleepy at certain times of day. However, our modern day lives don’t always concur with our internal body clocks.
Scientific studies have been indicating that defying your body clock leads to numerous problems such as obesity, diabetes and cancer. Scientists don’t know all the ins and outs of how our circadian rhythms work, but one thing is for certain – you should try to avoid mismatching your body clock and your actual life as much as possible.
Here are a few facts to help you understand more about your body clock.
Look after your clock genes. Genes responsible for all sorts such as regulating body temperature and even your mood run on internal clocks also. A study carried out by the University of Surrey says that an astonishing 97% of these genes become out of sync when we sleep at the wrong time, hence why jet lag and night shifts leave us feeling pretty awful.
Clock genes which affect your immunity. Everyone has experienced a cold after a few too many sleepless nights. It seems that many of these genes which are regulated by your body clock are associated with the immune system. Desync your circadian rhythm and your genes aren’t going to be very effective when it comes to fighting off a nasty virus.
Turn off the technology. The main signal for your body to go to sleep is darkness. Artificial light, be it from your laptop or phone sends the brain mixed messages, tricking your brain to believe it is daytime rather than night, you’re body will become more alert as a result and you can say goodbye to a good night’s sleep! So make sure you put away the smartphone before you plan on going to bed, and watching movies in bed isn’t a recipe for a soundless night of sleep either.
A mismatched clock will even affect your fertility. If you are hoping to become pregnant, making sure that artificial light doesn’t mess up your circadian rhythm before bedtime is even more important. When we are in complete darkness, a well synchronized circadian rhythm will secrete melatonin (the hormone of darkness). This hormone is an antioxidant, and amongst other things it protects a woman’s eggs from stress.
Go camping. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but venturing away from city life is a great way to reset your clock. A study carried out by the University of Colorado Boulder found that after a week of camping in the countryside, the campers had their internal circadian rhythms well synced to the sunrise and sunset. It’s not just humans who are affected by the artificial lights of urban areas, birds living in cities seem to be more nocturnal with a faster circadian rhythm than their companions in the countryside.
An out of sync clock in depressed people. In 2013 a study from the University of Michigan showed that the genes of depressed people seemed to be desynchronised from the normal 24 hour cycle. Not only were these people sleeping at the wrong time of day, but the quality of their sleep was worse.
Jet lag is not just about travel. Hopping from one time zone to the next isn’t the only way to become jet lagged. Your brain can be tricked into jet lag simply by diverging from a normal sleep routine, this will confuse your body clock and is referred to as social jet lag. Ways to avoid suffering from social jet lag is to sleep and wake up at a similar time each day, and make sure you get a sufficient dose of natural light in the morning to get that body clock ticking at the right time.
Jet lag and other circadian disorders. When talking about social jet lag rather than the occasional flight, it disrupts your normal sleeping pattern by mismatching your body clock and the external cues. This could mean eating, sleeping or being awake at a time which isn’t optimal for your body due to your work, school or social schedule. In the long term this will result in you building up a sleep debt or even suffering from insomnia. Other circadian disorders include: Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder and shift work disorder.
Hopefully now you have a little bit more knowledge about your circadian rhythm and its importance for your overall health and wellbeing. The occasional night where you defy your body clock is inevitable, but more and more research indicates that desynchronising your circadian rhythm from your external environment may lead to a number of health problems.