The Nobel Prize for Circadian RhythmLittle is known about the relationship between circadian rhythm and sleep - that is until 2017 when sleep researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize for circadian rhythm breakthroughs. The relationship between circadian rhythm and sleep is exciting, so read on to how your internal clock affects almost everything about you.
What Is the Circadian Rhythm?An internal rhythm is one of the fundamental unifying features of life on Earth. From the rotation of the planet to the inner workings of all living cells, Mother Nature and Father Time have collaborated over millions of years to instill a primal and robust rhythm to life on our planet. It orchestrates and integrates all living things at nearly every level — from the sun rising and roosters crowing to birds migrating and babies napping — it’s all happening on Nature’s grand timetable. We have long known that our eyes funnel changes in light to a central clock deep in our brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus. Left to our own devices (or perhaps before we had devices) our bodies are programmed to rise with the sun and rest during the night. But, it is more than just the light (or lack of it) that controls our functions. Our personal internal clock has evolved to the point where it actually anticipates our waking time, rather than our body being surprised by waking. If you’ve ever been awakened suddenly, you probably felt disoriented and found it difficult to become fully awake. That’s because your clock was caught off guard and it hadn’t prepped your body for waking. Typically, before we even open our eyes, our body is prepping for the awake process. Our blood pressure starts to rise, our body temperature increases, our slowed breathing speeds up a bit, our "get going" hormone cortisol starts gearing up for production and our brain transitions out of deep sleep.
Cirdadian Rhythm Is Not All about LightYour internal clock is such a powerful biological force, that even when people, plants or animals are locked in a dark room for long periods of time, they will still go through the motions of waking up and slowing down on the same schedule. Life will persist as long as possible to adhere to its internal clock, even against all odds. This rhythm is referred to as our circadian rhythm, and it is known for being responsible for regulating our sleep/wake cycle via light signals transmitted to the master clock in our brain. That being said, for all of our advances in medicine, sleep has remained one of the great areas of scientific mystery. We still don’t understand completely why people sleep; how sleep happens; and, why it is so critical to our health. It turns out that a human being can go considerably longer without food than without sleep. Sleep deprivation is an attack on every critical body process.
Without Sleep, We Cannot SurviveOur higher mental functions are one of the first things to go when we are sleep deprived. After missing just one night of sleep, we begin hallucinating; lose our grip on time; increase our sensitivity to light and color; experience diminished self-control; and, feel the very fabric of our personality and mental wellbeing start to unravel. In traumatic head injuries, one of the first signs that someone might recover is when they show the ability to resume normal sleep. To survive is to sleep. We don’t need to know all the details of how neurochemistry works to know that when we don’t get a good night’s sleep, we don’t feel right the next day; we are fatigued, grumpy and not at the top of our game. Of course, if we woke up one morning and the sun didn’t rise or the tides didn’t come in, we would quickly know that a catastrophic event was underway. These events are natural phenomena that are highly visible and so reliable, we literally can set our clocks by them. However, disruption of nature’s timing mechanism on a molecular level is also debilitating, but less visible. Scientists have found hundreds of genes’ expression that are involved in maintaining, repairing and protecting the body and its key functions are altered in shift workers and people with jet lag. Our modern lifestyle has researchers estimating that more than 80% of adults have “social jet lag” or two nights a week where they shift their bedtime by more than 2 hours. The evidence of sleep deprived, and out-of-sync human beings is all around us. I bet if you think about it, you too can feel it when you are out of sync.
Sleep Research: The Nobel Prize for Circadian RhythmA huge leap forward was established in 2017 when the Nobel Prize for circadian rhythm research was awarded in the category of Physiology and Medicine. This landmark discovery demonstrated that not only is there a Master clock, but that each cell in the body is subject to tissue-specific clocks on the molecular level. These molecular clocks are ideally synchronized by the Master clock, and they control far more than just the sleep/wake cycle. Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael Young discovered the genes and the proteins they make that regulate our internal clocks. Their amazing research is the foundation for why going against our circadian rhythm can have serious health consequences. It is no wonder that dysfunctions in the circadian rhythm have been found in people with cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and other serious and chronic illnesses. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified shift work as a "probable human carcinogen." Our circadian rhythm influences every major physiological function in the body, including temperature, blood sugar, immunity, blood pressure, fat usage, memory storage, hunger signals, cellular repair and clean-up, metabolism and the release of hormones. The coordination and optimization of our cellular clocks in every part of our body is a delicate and complex symphony of timing, programming and adaptation.
Tick, tock, tick, tock….Each time we repeat a complete turn on our circadian clock on schedule, we reinforce the universal rhythm of life that has been engineered for our benefit by Mother Nature and Father Time.
How to reset and optimize your circadian rhythm:
- Finish eating at least 3-4 hours before bedtime. That means all food or drink, other than water. After light stimulation, eating is the single biggest cue to reset our circadian clock. Eating and sleeping at they same time each day will revolutionize your sleep and change your life.
- Standardize wake and sleep times. Try to go to bed and wake up within an hour of the same times each day.
- Limit eating and drinking Other than water, limit eating and drinking to 12 hours or less per day. Our bodies were not intended to process food during our every waking hour. We need to turn off the digestive machinery, so that it can cycle through the same rhythm of activity and rest that our body needs.
- Get sunlight. Our body interprets sunlight differently than most indoor lighting. Sunlight has a profound and stabilizing effect on circadian rhythm. Try to get 1-2 hours of sunlight each day. Take a brief walk each morning or eat your lunch outside. Besides the extra exercise, parking far away from the front door will give you a couple extra minutes of sunlight.
- Guard your sleep environment. Keep it pristine. If you can’t keep it free of light, then wear a loose-fitting sleep mask. If you can’t keep it quiet, then try background white noise or ear plugs. Your devices, overhead lighting and television may be sending conflicting signals to your brain and then your molecular clocks. Even flipping on the light if you get up to go to the bathroom, will mess up your circadian timing.