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Improving our Circadian Health

Much has been said and learned about our circadian rhythms – our internal clock that tells us when to go to sleep and when to wake up. There are some times when they simply are sacrificed for convenience or pleasure, such as when we travel abroad and experience jet lag. These circadian disruptions are generally temporary, and though we may feel their effects they are generally temporary. We return from vacation and resume our normal routine and quickly feel better.

The circadian rhythm is an approximately 24-hour cycle that keeps us adjusted to our local time zone and schedule. It is not just one clock but many that are located within the body. Though it was once thought that the circadian rhythm was strictly associated with the brain it has become clear that it pervades every organ and system of the human organism. 

The circadian rhythm has developed over centuries, helping early humans to adjust to the changing of the seasons, the necessities of migration, and to respond to shortages of food. But today we are awoken by alarm clocks rather than the rising sun and our schedules are determined by work, family and social necessities rather than the need to hunt or farm. We are exposed to much more light throughout the evening as a result of the invention of electricity and we are able to travel across time zones quickly as a result of jet planes. Our meals are irregular, we use devices that fool our brains into thinking that it is morning – all of these are reasons why the human circadian rhythm is in such a state of disarray in so many people.

Though interruptions in the circadian rhythm that occur occasionally are of only minor importance, when people’s cycles become chronically out of sync it can lead to serious and life-impacting health conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Lack of proper circadian adherence also is associated with cognitive deficits, brain degeneration, and premature aging. Temporary jet lag and circadian rhythm disruptions lead to feelings of daytime drowsiness or fatigue, but when the interruption goes on for too long a period of time it ends up causing problems within many of the body systems. Employees who work on night shifts have been shown to experience greater risks of cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems and nurses who work night shifts have been found to be at higher risk for breast cancer.

Though there is nothing that can be done to prevent the need for people to work at night, there are ways that those who work on shifts or who regularly engage in cross-continent travel can minimize the impact of their schedules on their circadian rhythms. Our internal clocks can be exposed to additional light and sleep disruption can be minimized in order to maximize the sleep that we are able to get, and special lighting can be utilized. Medications and supplements may also help restore natural rhythms.  There is a real need for more research to be done to address these issues and to protect our circadian rhythms… otherwise there will be far-reaching and costly health impacts in the future.

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