Our lives are governed by international travels, 24/7 delivery, window blinds, and Netflix. Ruled by the habit of having everything available on demand anytime, we are trained to believe we are in control. From how much food we need to when we should sleep. Our needs have evolved to something unbiased of time and place. I’m gonna ask you to put that notion aside for a moment. That idea of being the sole master of your own time. Instead, I’m going to ask you to face the fact that Nature rules. This year, a new discovery forces us to take a good look at what’s beyond our control, because nature says so. Let’s talk about how the body clock works, the circadian rhythm, and this year’s winner of the Nobel prize for medicine or physiology.
The body clock and circadian rhythm
First discovered in little fruit flies, we now know that the molecular components of the clock are at full work in all multicellular life. In all living organisms and in all living things. Humans included. This means the body clock is now considered a key aspect of life. Not the smartwatch on your wrist or the old granny clock at your parents’ house. We are referring to our built-in body clock governed by the circadian rhythm. The one you carry with you at all times. The internal clock that connected the rotation of our planet to our cells, over millions of years of evolution.
The internal body clock lets organisms know the rising and setting patterns of the sun. It does not depend on us reacting to it through senses like vision and hearing. It’s like a million timepieces spread out through different cell types. They automatically and seamlessly inform our bodies of what time it is. These little timepieces in our cells control physiology like sleep, body temperature, metabolism, and release of hormones. Meaning, we all have a built-in autopilot governed by the circadian rhythm. A 24-hour built-in smarter smart watch telling us when it’s time to feel sleepy and when it’s time to feel alert. We’ve known it existed for a while. But until this recent discovery, we had little knowledge of how it actually works.
Here’s how we know how the body clock and circadian rhythm works
Scientists already knew internal body clocks existed long before they figured out how they work. Solving the mystery kicked off in 1971 when Seymour Benzer and his student Ronald Konopka discovered faulty body clocks in fruit flies. The pair of them were then able to trace the cause of the faulty body clocks back to a mutation in one particular gene. That gene was later named PER.
In comes Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash, this year’s Nobel prize winners who in 1984 started studying the PER gene. Together they figured out how our body clocks work governed by the circadian rhythm. They proved that the PER gene builds up in cells overnight, and breaks down over the day. Meaning the level of this gene is not constant throughout a time period of 24 hours. Its levels rise and fall. The pair paired up with Michael Young at Rockefeller University, who found a second body clock gene called TIM. The three of them were able to piece together a number of additional genes in the body clock’s chemical process. They discovered and identified the cells that ultimately help set the time in our body clocks. The time governed by the circadian rhythm, in turn, regulated by the light our body receives over 24 hours.
How can this newfound knowledge help?
This will help scientists improve public health. For example, some drugs have a better effect when taken at the right time, in line with hormone levels and digestion cycles. Now that we know how the circadian rhythm works, we can calculate when hormone levels and digestion cycles hit the sweet spot. We can distribute drugs when the best effect is achieved. Which in turn helps save money and time, but first and foremost will help save lives.
When it comes to sleep, this discovery lets us figure out why some people are early birds and some are night owls. If you’re always tired in the morning, even if you get enough sleep, there’s a simple explanation at hand. You’re most likely naturally tuned that way by your body clock and circadian rhythm. Knowledge like this can help you learn how to plan your sleep schedule accordingly, making sure you wake up in the right sleep phase to maximize your energy levels. In addition, fighting jet-lag will now make total sense, since the wrong time a day to feel sleepy most likely is the right time of day.
To the benefit of the sleep industry, an increased attention to the nature of the circadian rhythm is believed to make a big impact in the future of sleep diagnostics and sleep aid. These new discoveries will provide valuable tools for sleep research, helping apps like Sleep Cycle provide better sleep services to consumers across the globe.
Making sure you listen to what your body needs, grows even more important with the discovery of the effect of the circadian rhythms on body and mind. The myth of how all needs can be controlled as if engineered by your outlook calendar is history. Scrap that! Enter the day of getting to know your own body’s built-in calendar. Be generous and give your smarter smartwatch a bit more say in how you plan your days, from now on.