Not getting enough sleep leaves us tired during the day. But the body’s clock also affects mood, mental alertness, hunger, and heart function.
We all feel the ebb and flow of daily life, the daily rhythms that shape our days. The most basic daily rhythm we live by is the sleep-wake cycle, which (for most) is related to the cycle of the sun. It makes us feel sleepy as the evening hours wear on, and wakeful as the day begins. Sleep-wake and other daily patterns are part of our circadian rhythms, (circum means “around” and dies, “day”) which are governed by the body’s internal or biological clock, housed deep within the brain.
But research has been finding that the body’s clock is responsible for more than just sleep and wakefulness. Other systems, like hunger, mental alertness, and mood, stress, heart function, and immunity also operate on a daily rhythm.
The existence of the biological clock can be particularly apparent when it’s off kilter: Jet lag and shift work can throw our normal patterns out of whack and take a toll on physical and mental health. Even shifting the clock an hour forward or backward when daylight savings time begins or ends can disrupt our biological clocks.
Disrupting our body’s natural cycles can cause problems. Studies have found there are more frequent traffic accidents and workplace injuries when we spring forward and lose an hour of sleep. Heart patients are at greater risk for myocardial infarction in the week following the Daylight Savings time shift. But even more significant is that science continues to discover important connections between a disrupted clock and chronic health issues, from diabetes to heart disease to cognitive decline.
It turns out that the same genes and biological factors that govern our internal clock are also involved in how other body systems operate — and break down. It can be hard to determine whether a disrupted clock leads to health problems, or whether it’s the other way around.
We’re beginning to understand more about how the clock interacts with and helps govern the function of other systems and affects our overall health. In fact, keeping your body’s daily cycle on an even keel may be one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
YOUR BODY WANTS TO RUN LIKE A SWISS WATCH
The idea of a biological clock may sound like a quaint metaphor, but there is actually a very distinct brain region that is charged with keeping time: It is an area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (or SCN), situated right above the point in the brain where the optic nerve fibers cross. This location enables the SCN to receive the cues it needs from light in the environment to help it keep time.
But genes also influence the body’s clock and circadian rhythms. The system requires both types of input — light and genes — to keep it on track. To stay on the 24-hour cycle, the brain needs the input of sunlight through the eyes to reset itself each day. When humans are allowed to run off their body’s clock apart from input from the sun, by being kept in continuous darkness, the body’s daily cycle tends to lengthen to about 25 hours. And when people or animals lack the genes that help control the clock’s cycle, their sleep-wake cycles can stray even further, or be absent completely. The need for both kinds of cues — light and genes — make the biological clock a classic example of how genes and the environment work in tandem to keep the system functioning well.
Our Behaviors and Body Functions Run on Cycle
Melatonin is one hormone responsible for our body’s daily cycle. When night falls and there is less light input to the SCN, the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for making us feel sleepy, goes up. When it’s dark, more melatonin is secreted, which signals the brain to go into sleep mode. When the sun rises, melatonin secretion is inhibited, and the brain’s awake circuits resume.
Other systems also follow a daily rhythm, many of which are controlled by hormones and other compounds that receive cues from the biological clock. For example, the hormones responsible forhunger and metabolism rise and fall over the course of the day. The chemicals involved in immune system function also vary. Compounds that encourage the inflammatory response rise at night, (which is why fevers tend to spike then), and those that inhibit it rise during the day.
This is likely because the body is better at fighting infection while it is at rest, and energy can be poured into the effort, rather than into other functions. And activity of the stress response system — particularly in secretion of the stress hormone, cortisol — is reduced during the nighttime hours, and heightened in the early morning.
Although there are certain areas of the body, like the heart, that are able to govern their own function to some degree, there is strong evidence that the body clock plays a major role in controlling many of these fluctuations (such as in blood sugar) over the 24-hour period.
ENVIRONMENTAL DISRUPTIONS TO THE BODY’S CLOCK
Some of the best knowledge we have about the roles the biological clock plays in our health come from instances in which the cycle gets out of sync. This can happen for different reasons, and we’re just starting to understand them in greater detail. Sometimes we do things ourselves that disrupt our normal rhythms, like flying to a distant time zone. Sometimes it’s other factors, (like genes or biology) that play a role.
Flying across the country on the red-eye is a prime example of how we can disrupt our own clocks, and a far more extreme example than the spring forward/fall back ritual in many parts of the U.S.
When jet lag sets in, we feel disoriented, foggy, and sleepy at the wrong times of day because, after changing time zones, our body clock tells us it’s one time and the outside environment tells us it’s another. In fact, jet lag can be considered one type of circadian rhythm disorder. It can be treated simply be allowing the body to adjust to the new time, although it may take several days for external cues (light) to help the internal clock catch up or fall back with its new cycle.
Shift work is another example of how we can get ourselves off-cycle, and this too can develop into a circadian rhythm disorder over the long term. People who work the night shift not only have a hard time with their sleep patterns (feeling sleepy at work or experiencing insomnia during the day), but other systems in their bodies can also feel the effects — and they can be chronic. It’s not been clear exactly why this connection exists, but weight gain or metabolic changes may be involved. These phenomena underline how particular behaviors or lifestyles can affect the body’s clock, but there are other factors at play, like genetics and body chemistry.
by Alice G. Walton is a health-and-science journalist who writes on medical issues, particularly those related to the brain and behavior. She holds a Ph.D. in biopsychology and is an editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.
Read more: Why You Should Get More Sleep