Start Paying More Attention to Your Internal Clocks
This month, the 2017 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to three American scientists for their research on how internal clocks govern human life. Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young won “for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm,” reported the Nobel Foundation. The Nobel Assembly summarized the research findings:
“Using fruit flies as a model organism, this year’s Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day. Subsequently, they identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell. We now recognize that biological clocks function by the same principles in cells of other multicellular organisms, including humans. With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day. The clock regulates critical functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism.”
The implications of these finding are huge. It will change the way we think about health dramatically. It won’t be long before physicians are incorporating diagnostic questions around our schedules with the standard questions about diet and exercise and prescribing treatment that includes “sleeping and eating at the same time every day.” Katherine Streeter and Allison Aubrey reported on NPR this month that the new discoveries related to circadian rhythm mean that we not only have a “biological clock”, but several clocks. In short, that we are sophisticated time-keeping machines.
That means while our brain may have a “master clock,” set by the light-dark cycle, it is also true that our liver has a clock, our heart has a clock, our kidneys have a clock, our stomach has a clock, and so on—all set by other cues, such as when we eat a meal, or when we sleep. When we keep to a schedule for sleeping and eating all our clocks stay in sync. But if we mess with our body’s natural sleep-wake cycle that is tied to light-dark cycle, we throw off our biological rhythm. And the price we pay is high blood pressure, weight gain, and diabetes.
“What we’re doing now in medicine is what Einstein did for physics. He brought time to physics. We’re bringing time to biology.”
— Fred Turek, circadian scientist, Northwestern University.
For example, if an employee works a graveyard shift and eats a meal in the middle of the night, the master clock of the brain set by the light-dark cycle is screaming: “No, don’t eat, it’s dark! It’s time to rest!” When the employee overrides the master clock and eats anyway, the clock in the pancreas resets itself and releases insulin to deal with the meal. These resets can have large, long-lasting consequences. In the NPR report, scientists asked listeners to imagine a symphony with many different instruments and musicians. When the conductor comes out and begins to instruct the orchestra, they play in sync and create something beautiful. But now imagine if every instrument was playing out of synch. It sounds horrible! And we can’t tolerate it for long periods of time. De-synchronizing our clocks say by traveling across time zones, having a baby that keeps us up at night or working unpredictable emergency shifts can be overcome if the duration is short and not repeated over years. But when living against our master clock becomes our way of life, we pay a heavy price—much heavier than medical experts previously understood.
Our Internal Clocks and the Slammed Experience
The rise of the “always on” culture of democratized time and technology means that our society definitions of “the work day,” “the work week,” and “weekends,” or even “too late,” and “too early” have all gone out the window with the 24/7 pacing that comes with every smartphone. In our book SLAMMED: Succeeding in A World of Too Busy, we write that we need to break free of the Slammed cycle. But, it may be more accurate to say that we need to adhere to our body’s natural cycle—align our behaviors to our internal clocks. Doing so won’t just mean a more healthy relationship with time, but is more healthy, period.