When a Disrupted “Body Clock” Puts Your Body in Gridlock
Think of what happens when traffic signals go haywire or stop functioning correctly—the chaos of cars, confused drivers, and the dangers of collision. Your body’s cells are not that different: A single interruption of your body’s “central clock,” such as turning your clock forward an hour for Daylight Saving Time, can potentially disrupt the millions of activities and pathways that keep your body running smoothly.
Akin to the way all our modern electronic, communication, and traffic systems rely on a “master clock” for precise time and synchronization, your body also counts on its own internal master timekeeper.
Located in the part of your brain called the hypothalamus there exists a tiny area that bears a long name and a major responsibility: the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is tasked with being your central “body clock”. It sets the pace for millions of biological cadences, or circadian rhythms that rule all your cells. But when it’s fuddled, it can also put countless other cellular clocks out of sync.
Synchronize Your Body Clock
The difference between smooth or snarled traffic within your body all starts with maintaining a healthy, 24-hour rhythm called your sleep-wake cycle. The sleep-wake cycle is thought to be at its best quality when synchronized regular daytime-nighttime cycle, meaning that you sleep when the sun goes down and are active and awake when the sun is up.
Melatonin Helps Set Your Body Clock
The reason has to do with melatonin, produced by the pineal gland in the brain, because the hormone’s production is extremely sensitive to light and darkness. In some cases, bright lights (like those of a computer or tablet) can even suppress melatonin production at night sending your “clock genes” tossing and turning.
A disrupted melatonin rhythm resulting from lack of sleep or mistimed sleep can throw off many of your cellular circadian rhythms. Recently, two unrelated studies found that after only a week of getting less than six hours of sleep daily, the body can suffer drastic changes:
- UK’s Surrey Sleep Research Centre led a research study that evaluated the consequences of one week of insufficient sleep on 26 men in which they found that the men had altered activity of some 700 genes (1). A number of the genes affected by sleep deprivation included several “clock genes” such as those that regulate the circadian rhythms involved in metabolism, immune system response, and stress response (1).
- Mayo Clinic researchers found, in addition, that insufficient sleep could lead to changes in eating habits and appetite that could increase the likelihood that people will consume more calories, without increasing activity, causing weight gain (2).
Just last year, Medical Research Council UK and the British Heart Foundation researchers also linked poor sleep habits to cardiovascular risk and accelerated aging based on the length of telomeres (3). In their study, men who slept 5 hours or fewer per night had 6 percent shorter telomeres compared with those who slept 7 hours per night. Comparably, a loss of 6 percent telomere length is equivalent to a third of what has been recorded as lost because of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day! (Previously, we wrote about a study that showed women are not immune to shorter telomeres from poor sleep either.)
How to not lose sleep over these grim figures? There are three ways, backed by science, that have shown to considerably improve sleep cycle:
- going to bed and waking up around the same time daily,
- getting regular exercise (even close to bedtime, per a just-published study),
- and supplementing with melatonin nightly.
The first two of these strategies are pretty straightforward. The last, melatonin supplementation daily, is often questioned—Don’t we make enough in our own bodies? Shouldn’t melatonin be used only for situations like jet lag to correct sleep-wake cycle? The scientific evidence is irrefutable that the answer is “no” (an answer that is stronger with each year of age after age 35).
Dropping melatonin levels already affects sleep cycles for millions upon millions reaching ages 65 and older. Restless nights are increasingly becoming the norm for these aging Baby Boomers and elderly.
The simple solution is melatonin as an easy-to-reach-for supplement supplying safe amounts taken nightly. The alternative, to borrow the traffic metaphor again, is an unsettled “body clock” over the long term that is sure to wreak gridlock and untold pile-up of damages.
1. Möller-Levet CS, Archer1 SN, Bucca G, Laing EE, Slak A, Kabiljo R, Lo JCY, Santhi N, von Schantz M, Smith CP, Dijk D. Effects of insufficient sleep on circadian rhythmicity and expression amplitude of the human blood transcriptome. PNAS 2013 Feb 25 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1217154110.
2. Calvin AD, Carter RE, Adachi T, Macedo P, Albuquerque FN, van der Walt C, Bukartyk J, Davison DE, Levine JA, Somers VK. Effects of Experimental Sleep Restriction on Caloric Intake and Activity Energy Expenditure. Chest. 2013 Feb 7. doi: 10.1378/chest.12-2829. [Epub ahead of print]
3. Jackowska M, Hamer M, Carvalho LA, Erusalimsky JD, Butcher L, et al. (2012) Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Shorter Telomere Length in Healthy Men: Findings from the Whitehall II Cohort Study. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47292. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0047292.