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Do you often feel sluggish when the clock rolls around to 1:00 or 2:00
in the afternoon?
A psychiatry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles’s Brain
Research Institute may have an explanation about why many people hit “the
wall” shortly after lunch hour.
Circadian rhythms, or circadian cycles, affect nearly every living
organism, including plants, bacteria, insects and human beings. Circadian
rhythms, largely based on signals of light and darkness, are your body’s
internal clock sending signals to all of your cells directing how and when to
conduct certain physiological processes.
The reason newborns wake up in the middle of the night isn’t because they
aren’t yet “trained” to their parent’s schedule — it’s because their internal
clocks haven’t yet developed1.
Your sleep and wake cycles are governed by this internal clock, which
acts like a “choreographer” so that all your body’s systems can work together
smoothly. How does it do this? By altering genetic expression, which controls
the protein messengers your body sends to your heart, brain, liver and other
vital organs. These proteins are vital to internal communication and
coordination — and for staying healthy.
The featured study, appearing in the December 2012 Journal of
Physiology2, found that exercise helps regulate your circadian rhythms, and
the effect may be most profound if it’s done in the middle of the day.
A Broken Internal Clock Comes with Serious Health Risks
If you have trouble sleeping at night or staying awake during the day,
your internal clock may be broken. This is a growing problem in today’s world
of ever-present electronic devices, globalization, and around-the-clock
media. Your circadian rhythms may become confused, for example, by sleeping
in a lit room when your body expects darkness, or by working the night shift.
Or by jet lag, which is a common temporary disruption. Aging appears to
worsen people’s internal clocks, according to Dr. Colwell3:
“By middle age, most of us start to have trouble falling asleep and
staying asleep, then we have trouble staying awake the next day.”
The problem is, research shows there are potentially serious health
consequences of disrupted circadian rhythms, such as increased risk of
diabetes, obesity, hypertension, memory loss, headaches, indigestion, mood
disorders, learning problems, and even certain types of cancer. Disrupted
sleep cycles have the potential to stimulate cancer growth by altering the
hormones your brain makes while you sleep, such as melatonin. Melatonin is
known to suppress tumor development. For help getting a good night’s sleep,
refer to our comprehensive sleep guide. Lack of sleep and altered circadian
cycles can exacerbate other serious diseases such as:
Parkinson and Alzheimer diseases
Gastrointestinal tract disorders
Behavioral problems in children
Decreased melatonin can even accelerate the aging process of your brain.
Your Circadian Clock Switches Genes On and Off
Scientists at the Salk Institute have actually determined the specific
genetic switches that synchronize liver activity to your circadian cycle,
which sheds some light on how a damaged internal clock predisposes you to
The headquarters for your circadian clock is located in your brain, in a
structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus4, a tiny area sitting just above
your optic nerves. However, there are other clocks in your body, including in
your visceral organs, which tell specific genes when to make certain
proteins. The switching on and off of genes is regulated by your “epigenome,”
a set of molecules that signal to your genes how to direct your body’s
According to research scientists Satchidananda Panda of the Salk
Institute, your liver’s clock regulates genes that control the timing of your
metabolism of fat, glucose and cholesterol. You can’t control what genes
you’re born with, but you CAN help control their expression, and exercise is
one of the ways you can stack the deck in your favor.
Panda explains :
"We know that when we eat determines when a particular gene turns on
or off; for example, if we eat only at nighttime, a gene that should be
turned on during the day will turn on at night. In response to natural
cycles, our body has evolved to make glucose at nighttime. But if on top of
what you eat, you're creating excess glucose and that damages organs, which
leads to diabetes. It's like over-charging a car battery. Bad things will
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