New Research On Our Biological Clocks
Sleep is essential. Without rest, we feel out of sorts, grumpy and, yes, tired. But the need for sleep goes way beyond its influence on moods and motivation. Sleep is a fundamental mechanism that helps recharge and restore our bodies. In the pantheon of bad things we can do to ourselves, going without sleep for long periods is perhaps the worst.
But just getting sufficient sleep is not enough. You need quality sleep. New research is showing that how and when we sleep greatly influences our overall health. In fact, numerous conditions, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, may be linked at least in part to our sleep habits.
Circadian Rhythms: New Studies
Whether you wear a watch or not, your body is attuned down to the cellular level to the Earth’s 24-hour rotation — your circadian rhythm. In fact, the body gets reset daily by sunlight exposure. For a variety of reasons, we evolved to sleep at night and be active during the day. However, with the advent of electric lighting and late-night shifts, we no longer abide by these ancient rules. We sleep when it’s convenient. And while this may suit certain lifestyles, the body knows better.
There’s a large and growing collection of research that indicates we violate circadian rules at our own risk. One large study, conducted in France, found that women who worked nights had a 30 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer, compared to women who worked during the day. Other research has found similar links to prostate, colon, lung and pancreatic cancers.
Another report found that going against our circadian clocks increases chronic inflammation. This could lead to cancer and other conditions. Other studies have shown that night work has a negative effect on metabolism and may contribute to obesity.
It’s not just shift work that can affect circadian rhythm. New research from the University of Michigan has shown that depression can also affect this critical cycle. The study found that, in most people, specific genes get turned on and off at specific times of the day. This routine was so precise that the researchers could even use it to determine a deceased person’s hour of death.
However, the study showed that people who suffered from depression were completely out of tune with this cycle. Genes that should have been turned on during the day were being activated at night and vice versa. Their cycles were out of balance, potentially leading to other long-term health risks.
One of the reasons shift work may be harmful is its relationship with melatonin, a powerful antioxidant and repair hormone closely associated with circadian rhythms. Normally, melatonin is produced by the pineal gland at night in response to darkness, when it helps reset our internal clocks. But bright lights throw the system off, causing our bodies to make less of the hormone. So even if we’re not working the late shift, it’s a good idea to avoid bright light at night. And make sure you sleep in a dark room without light sources from outside or even from the illumination from your alarm clock. If you live in an urban area with all-night street lighting, you can easily purchase special curtains that effectively block out the light. Studies also show that too much electronic light at night may trigger depression in people, possibly related to disrupted circadian rhythms. Minimizing your nighttime TV and computer time will help keep your rhythms in sync.
Another way to help the body cope is meditation. Circadian rhythms govern hormone production, including the hormone cortisol, which is associated with stress. When produced in large quantities, cortisol can cause inflammation and contribute to a number of serious conditions, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Elevated cortisol also promotes weight gain by signaling the body to store fat. However, meditation can help control cortisol. I particularly recommend the ancient practice of meditating before dawn to help the body prepare for the coming sunlight.
There are a number of supplements that can help us manage our internal clocks. Melatonin tops the list, but caution is in order. It’s a powerful hormone best used under a physician’s guidance. Have your doctor test your melatonin levels first and then decide on the appropriate response.
In my practice, I also recommend the botanical compound honokiol, derived from magnolia bark. Magnolia has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine to promote rest and relaxation and to support numerous other areas of health. Honokiol is also a powerful antioxidant that has been found to reduce inflammation with antioxidant activity 1,000 times greater than vitamin E. Honokiol supports relaxation and mood because it has the unique ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and influence GABA receptors, promoting healthy relaxation and reducing anxiety.
Perhaps the best advice I can give for balancing circadian rhythms is to develop a healthy, regularly scheduled routine. Eat lean protein and lots of fruits and vegetables at regular times; don’t just eat on the run. Schedule your exercise as well and stay away from bright light at least two hours before bedtime. Try to get to bed by 10 p.m. These practices will foster a greater sense of calm, increase restful sleep, bolster melatonin levels and help keep you in tune with your circadian rhythms while supporting long-term health and vitality.