How are you feeling right now? A little tired? Ready to tackle the day? Hungry? Well, how you’re feeling right now probably has a lot to do with circadian timing — or your inner clock.
"Every cell in your body is a clock. It knows what time of day it is, and all of these cells are kind of orchestrated and regulated by what we call a master clock in the brain," explains Dr. Jennifer Evans. She studies circadian timing and its effects on the body at Marquette University.
This master clock, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), is unique because its cells talk among themselves, according to Evans. "It's a very flexible system, but like any biological system, if you push it too far it will break," she notes.
All of our cells and body functions fluctuate over the course of the day. There are optimal times to eat, sleep, and work. But how are our circadian rhythms regulated? And how does our modern life affect how our bodies adjust?
Recent studies suggest that disrupting our inner clocks is linked to health issues like obesity, heart disease, depression, and more.
Dr. Deanna Arble studies sleep, circadian rhythms, and their effects on diseases at Marquette University. She likens the operations of the master inner clock to a conductor leading your body's orchestra.
"These different tissues, they can have different optimal times, and that’s actually how it should be for the music to sound the best," Arble explains. "You don't want all the different sections playing the exact same tune. Everything has to be optimized, but synchronized to that master circadian clock in the brain."
Our circadian rhythms can get disrupted by work schedules, traveling, or changing our sleeping patterns. When this happens, we are basically intentionally putting our bodies into a jet lagged state, according to Evans.
The main culprit that throws off our inner clocks? Technology — more specifically, the blue light it emits.
"The biggest disruptor is definitely going to be light at the wrong time of day," notes Arble. "For the most part, the light at night doesn't break our system, it just causes unnecessary readjustment and re-training."
But science is helping us utilize our inner clocks to create new therapies that impact how to best take medications, when to eat and what sleep schedules work best so that we can feel better. Simple things like turning off the lights in hospitals at night can improve patient outcomes, according to Arble.
"I think that we're getting better at recognizing the importance of circadian rhythms, but we're not really where we should be yet," she adds.
From drug dosing to school start times, Evans says that there are some obstacles that need creative solutions. "We're still working on finding the right balance between the biology, the economics, and the social obligations," she says.
1. Have your body match your schedule
While 40% of our genes fluctuate, Evans says that whether you're a morning or night person is already embedded in your genes. The most important thing to keep in mind to utilize your inner clock is to make sure your body matches your schedule — and avoid all cues that will conflict with it.
"If you need to be a morning person, don't eat late at night. Don't drink caffeine late at night, do not have bright light exposure," explains Evans. "There are practical, technological advances that will help us do this. But there's really not one schedule that is best for everybody."
2. Minimize light exposure at night
Using our phones and computers seems to be an unavoidable fact of modern life. But there are tools we can use to reduce the harmful effects blue light has on our timing, according to Arble.
"If you have to have light at night, wear blue-blocking glasses," she notes. "This will at least filter out the blue light that is responsible for readjusting your circadian clock."