On April 14, Beatriz Flamini, a 50-year-old Spanish extreme athlete, emerged from a 230-foot deep cave in Andalusia after a 500-day isolation challenge. While Flamini sought unique experiences, scientists from various universities saw this as an opportunity to study the human body’s internal rhythms without external cues.
The Biological Clocks Within Us
Throughout history, humans have observed nature’s rhythms. From tamarind leaves that responded to the sun in the 4th century B.C. to the 13th-century Chinese medicine principle of qi flowing in 24-hour cycles. By the 18th century, scientists like Jean-Jacques d’Ortuous de Mairan noticed that certain plants maintained their rhythms even in darkness. Later, similar patterns were observed in animals.
Modern science has identified the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus as the primary timekeeper in humans. It responds to blue light from the sun, regulating our sleep-wake cycle. However, our body houses multiple “peripheral clocks” in various systems, each with its active and resting phases.
The Rise of Circadian Science
Recent years have seen a surge in interest in circadian science. From podcasts to wellness apps, the importance of maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm is becoming mainstream knowledge. Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience, notes the significant advancements in understanding these rhythms. Experts like Andrew Huberman emphasize the importance of outdoor light exposure shortly after waking to synchronize our body’s internal clocks.
The Importance of Synchronization
All life on Earth evolved with the planet’s rotation, which has changed over millions of years. Today, our modern lifestyles often disrupt our internal rhythms, leading to various health issues. Desynchronization can result in poor sleep, depression, increased risk of diseases, and even epigenetic changes passed between generations. Nurses, for instance, face higher risks of various cancers due to disrupted circadian systems.
The Potential of Circadian Science in Medicine
There’s growing interest in how circadian rhythms can influence medical treatments. For instance, certain drugs are being developed to target the clocks in cancer cells. Moreover, restoring sleep-wake circadian rhythms might help slow the progression of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Modern Interventions and Discoveries
Companies like Timeshifter are developing tools to help people adjust their circadian rhythms, especially useful for travelers and shift workers. Astronauts, for instance, face extreme circadian challenges in space, experiencing multiple sunrises and sunsets in a single day.
There have also been intriguing findings from interventions in circadian rhythms. Some treatments, like “triple chronotherapy,” have shown promise in temporarily alleviating conditions like depression. This treatment involves a combination of sleep deprivation and timed light exposure.
Our internal clocks play a crucial role in our overall well-being. As science continues to uncover the intricacies of our circadian rhythms, it’s clear that aligning with these natural cycles can significantly impact our health, mood, and performance. Whether we’re extreme athletes like Flamini or everyday individuals, understanding and respecting our internal rhythms is key to thriving in a modern world.