If you’ve ever read anything about how using your cell phone can keep you from getting a good night’s sleep or wondered why you get jet lagged when you travel, then you’ve spent at least a little time thinking about circadian rhythms. But what exactly are circadian rhythms, and why are they so important? It’s a big question with a lot to unpack.
Your Body’s Clock
A common way that scientists and writers describe your circadian rhythms is as your body’s internal or biological clock, and this is a good, basic description. Circadian rhythms consist of the many different bodily patterns that are tied to a 24-hour daily cycle.
These are physical, mental, and even behavioral, and different organ systems have their own unique expressions of these cycles. These shifts, which are largely regulated by exposure to light, especially sunlight, are most notable to the individual as hunger signals and digestion, body temperature, and alertness or fatigue.
Circadian Rhythm Disruptions
Another important factor everyone should understand about circadian rhythms is that their disruption by outside forces can lead to serious health problems. Now, a few nights of fatigue due to jet lag aren’t serious, of course, but in the long-term, dysregulation can lead to serious illnesses. And conversely, disruptions in circadian rhythms can be a sign of an underlying disorder.
As the most outwardly obvious sign of your circadian rhythms daily progression, sleep may be the most widely researched of the daily biological cycles. For example, researchers have looked carefully at sleep apnea as a cause of serious health problems.
Sleep apnea can be obstructive – meaning it’s caused by a physical blockage – or central – meaning the brain doesn’t send the signal to breathe during sleep; but in either case, it can prevent people from experiencing restful sleep, leading to significant health problems, including daytime sleepiness, problems with appetite regulation, and even an increased risk of heart disease and obesity.
Circadian Rhythms And Neurodegeneration
One of the most significant recent discoveries of note regarding circadian rhythms is the link between circadian rhythm dysfunction and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. In a study supported by the Brain Research Foundation, Dr. Ravi Allada explored the function of the circadian clock gene in fruit fly models, specifically examining its neuroprotective role. When there is a mutation in this gene, his lab concluded, the body is less able to protect itself against neurodegeneration.
Circadian Rhythms And Cancer
Another emerging area of research related to circadian rhythms is in regard to cancer risk. When the body’s normal rhythms, which include those involved in immune system function, are no longer working properly, it’s more likely that normal cellular repair systems will fail. This can lead to dangerous mutations; the body may also be less able to naturally kill cancer cells when there is a circadian rhythm disorder present.
There are many different illnesses directly and indirectly linked to circadian rhythm disorders, and work addressing these issues is still in the early stages. What has become clear, however, is that the more we know about our vital internal rhythms and how to maintain them, the better equipped we are to protect our overall health.