This week, a Nobel prize has been awarded to scientists for their research into circadian rhythms. But what does this futuristic sounding body function have to do with humans, and why is it so important?
As it turns out, circadian rhythm is another term for your body’s internal clock, an important natural time keeper that massively impacts the way we live our lives.
What does it mean?
The term ‘circadian’ comes from Latin. Circa means ‘close to’ and diem meaning ‘day’, and it relates to the way our bodies take influence from nature. It’s no coincidence that we’re attuned to the sun: waking up when it rises and slowing down as it sets.
It means our body’s natural time keeper lasts as long as a full day. Within this 24-hour period, our abilities change. You’ll know from experience that working in the very early morning and late at night is difficult, but have you noticed that at around 3pm, our body faces a decrease in alertness?
Some blame it on lunch, but according to sleep researcher Christopher M. Barnes, this is a natural dip in your body’s circadian process. The cycle continues into the afternoon, rising and peaking for a second time (the first being at noon) at around 6pm. We then begin the later part in our day, filled with energy until bed.
What can affect it?
A great example of when your circadian rhythm is instantly affected is jet lag. Jumping through time zones will result in your body feeling several hours out of sync, leading to fatigue, confusion and often sickness.
Shift work is also a cause of upset for the body clock, as it means that a natural rhythm cannot be established. The body is fights to keep up with itself, and our immune system is weakened as a result.
The ageing process impacts our body clocks, too. The high energy levels of children early in the day wanes as they grow into teenagers, only to come back during the later stages of life when older people tend to rise much earlier. As adults, our body decides whether we are ‘larks’- early risers- or ‘owls’ who roam at night.
How can we control it?
Scientific research continues to uncover connections between health issues and a disrupted body clock, which is why maintaining a respect for your internal rhythm is crucial. For those whose schedules face a disrupt due to the nature of night shifts, delaying bed times by an hour or so in the run up to your stint will help you adjust to a new waking pattern.
Frequent fliers can adapt by embracing the bedtime of the countries they land in, resting in dark, quiet rooms where possible. The body takes a day to adjust to up to two time zones; anything more will take up to five.
In general, making the room where you sleep as ‘cave like’ as possible is important in keeping your circadian rhythm healthy. Alertness drops to a minimum at around 2am, so making sure the body is safe and comfortable during sleep is vital.