FOR CENTURIES, SCIENTISTS have known that living organisms have internal clocks. These clocks allow us to anticipate the sun’s rising and setting and control much of our physiology. All life on Earth has evolved to be in alignment with the 24-hour revolution of our planet on its axis, and this alignment has caused us to evolve such that we are actually functioning as though we are two quite different creatures: one by day and a completely separate one by night.
We are designed and adapted to work, eat, and move during the day, and to sleep, rejuvenate, and repair at night. We function in perfect harmony with the movements of the planet; even our hormone production is coordinated with the rising and setting of the sun, in a complex system that has evolved over millions of years. All of this occurs, quite simply, to increase the chances of our survival. It’s only relatively recently, however, that we’ve really started to understand the relationship between the circadian rhythm and our wellbeing, and that’s why the news that the Nobel Prize in medicine has been awarded to three scientists who discovered the gene responsible for ensuring for controlling circadian rhythm is hugely significant.
Many aspects of our physiology are subject to circadian regulation including not just sleep-wake cycles but cognitive performance, cardiac and renal functions and digestion and detoxification. Overall, about 10% of all genes express in a circadian manner. Understanding the exact way in which we keep circadian rhythm therefore has far-reaching implications for our long-term health. It means that we can better study the relationship between our lifestyles and our internal rhythms––something that feels well-timed when there are ongoing discussions about the effects of late-night cellphone usage, shift work and and international travel on the body.
My specialty is women’s health in all its uniqueness, and my understanding and appreciation of the circadian rhythm is great. Rhythms are a very special area for women: there is the daily (circadian) rhythm, the monthly (lunar) rhythm, and seasonal rhythms as well. Maintaining these proper rhythms is essential to a woman’s wellbeing.
The critical issue for women is that the ‘master clock’, which resides in the brain, controls the ‘beat’ of the body, and this structure is controlled by estrogen! Sadly, our world is filled with estrogen endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A, phthalates, heavy metals, mold, and even contraceptives, and these chemicals can seriously interfere with the function of the master clock.
Additionally, women are faced with an internal time-bomb of sorts: the end of ovarian function, and with it, the onset of rhythm dysfunction. Once the rhythm is ‘off’, metabolic functions become uncoordinated and all sorts of ills follow. These ills can include mood swings and memory loss, depression and anxiety, diabetes and pre-diabetes, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular problems, and cancer. This is why all medical problems escalate in frequency and severity with the onset of menopause and the loss of estrogen: menopause takes women off the ‘beat.’ All of a sudden you and your planet are no longer synchronized. Resultantly, health deteriorates.
Circadian rhythm is significant to all life. To keep to your rhythm, you should practice good sleep hygiene and beneficial eating habits. You should eat within two hours of waking up in the morning, eat no more than three meals a day (so no snacking!) and stop eating at seven at night. Try to consume numerous plants in a variety of colours. The nutrients, antioxidants, fiber, and polyphenols can make a huge difference––and this can impact your healthy longevity by helping your to stay with the beat! It sounds simple, but many women don’t follow this basic advice.
Sunlight teaches the master clock in the brain to keep on track. You should start each day with exposure to bright light in the morning, get sun exposure between 11 and 1 in the middle of the day, and then end each day by watching the sunset and dimming the lights in your home. Air attendants, nurses, and other women who do shift work have huge issues with their circadian rhythm because the patterns of sleeping and eating that they follow are irregular, and don’t relate to the movement of the planet. Sadly, large numbers of women who work irregular hours develop circadian rhythm problems. Poor lifestyle choices like eating a high-fat diet or eating at irregular hours of the day can disrupt your circadian rhythm in much the same way as working a night shift can. This creates what is known as ‘social jet lag’. And as a side note, birth control pills have been documented to create a similar affect.
If you don’t respect the circadian rhythm, you open the door to insomnia, anxiety, depression and more. The good news is that it’s relatively easy to live in alignment with the planet and keep your clock ticking. Simply by getting enough sleep, eating a diet rich in nutritious foods and getting sun exposure, you can help to ward off a multitude of medical problems.