Mess With Your Circadian Rhythms and You’ll Be a Mess Too
Your Circadian Clock is called the Master Clock for a very good reason. That’s because it functions just like THE Master Clock, the granddaddy of all clocks located at U.S. Naval Observatory. Fortunately, your Circadian clock isn’t kept in a tightly sealed high security vault. You have complete access to it and you don’t even have to keep track of a password. Which means you have access to all the clocks that control your circadian rhythms. (If you’re feeling intoxicated with power right now, it’s completely understandable).
The term circadian is derived from two Latin words, circa (approximate) and dies (day), denoting approximately “one day”. Hence Circadian denotes a natural cycle of physical, mental, and behavior changes that happen around a 24-hour period. All our body systems have their own individual clocks and are connected to the Circadian “Master Clock”. For your body to function properly, these clocks must be timed to work like, well…clockwork. When these circadian clock rhythms become misaligned, you’ll feel the immediate effects that can lead to serious chronic health problems.
Light enters the eyes, (even through closed eyelids during sleep) stimulating a signal in back of the retina down a nerve tract to the circadian clock in the brain.
The single most important word to remember is LIGHT. Your circadian clock takes its cue from LIGHT. Say it three times. LIGHT. LIGHT. LIGHT. The color of that light makes a big difference too. We won’t go meta on you because it has to do with wavelength (a lot of info on that subject!) but if you’re curious, here’s where to learn more about wavelength and color.
If you have a healthy skepticism of all this stuff about master clocks, circadian rhythms, light color, and serious health problems, etc., we applaud you. We shouldn’t believe everything we read or hear without researching valid information to make an informed decision (and if you don’t, you should). But alas, that takes a lot of time that you probably don’t have. The good news is this blogpost contains links to credible research studies published in respected publications. So you can read that information with your own eyes (but hopefully not by the glow of blue light from your computer at night!).
Let’s walk through the causes and effects of a misaligned circadian rhythm.
One cause of an out-of-whack circadian rhythm is the lack of secretion of a hormone created in the brain called melatonin. Melatonin is the sandman of sleep that sends us off to dreamland. This hormone’s release is triggered by the transition from light to dark, and when inhibited or not secreted at all, it becomes very difficult if not impossible for you to fall asleep. When your brain releases melatonin on a consistent natural 24 hour daytime/nighttime driven schedule, a natural circadian rhythm is maintained. But when there’s an inconstant release of melatonin it creates a circadian rhythm that doesn’t follow the natural light/dark cycle. That includes not getting enough natural light during the day. When that happens you sleep badly. Sometimes very badly. Also known as sleep disturbance, the result is sleep deprivation.
There are consequences of sleep deprivation and none of them are good. Do you make more mistakes at work than usual? Trouble concentrating? Get colds more often than normal? Are you easily irritated all the time by your spouse, kids, and even the dog for every little thing? Get sleepy when driving, narrowly avoid a car accident, or even worse have a car accident?
Hello sleep deprivation.
Supplementing with melatonin is tricky because it’s impossible to mimic the natural melatonin blood level and time curve.
Wait a second, not use a digital device 2 whole hours before bedtime? I-M-P-O-S-S-B-L-E. As outrageous as it seems, it is possible. In another blogpost we will share some tricks, tips, and show you why thinking you’ll get ahead on all those work and email responses at night actually makes you less productive.
Light, and the color of the light, has a powerful effect on circadian rhythms. Artificial light at night (otherwise known as ALAN) also throws your circadian rhythm off-track because it emits blue light. Why does that matter? First of all, artificial light (also referred to as modern light) contains blue light and so it plays a rotten trick on our brains. ALAN tricks our brains into thinking it’s still daytime and eliminates the cue that tells them it’s time to sleep. And, because blue light puts the kibosh on our brains’ ability to release melatonin on a consistent schedule, our circadian rhythm then gets thrown for a loop.
It doesn’t help that all our digital devices use blue light rich artificial light to illuminate their screens. Unfortunately, most of us spend our evenings with our digital devices right up until we go to sleep. Or at least try to fall asleep and get a good night’s rest but unless you block blue light you’ll have little chance of success. One thing that will help is finding a pair of blue light blocking glasses for an inexpensive way to block blue light. Blue light blocker glasses have proven to be an effective way to filter out blue light from your digital device screens.
So why is all this information so important? Many studies have investigated health effects of ALAN and report a direct connection between artificial light at night and melatonin suppression, phase shift, sleep latency and body temperature. In addition, insomnia, sleep disorders and disturbances of deep sleep are induced by ALAN exposure which can cause chronic health problems. Also the negative effects from ALAN increase with the brightness of the light and the length of the exposure period.
The consequences of circadian rhythm disruption occur within a number of physiological areas.
So, as you can see when it comes to the consequences of artificial light at night, there’s more than meets the eye.
Over billions of years, the sun was central to the evolution and adaptation of life on earth. And then a guy named Edison came along and figured out how to make a light bulb. His invention was one of the biggest game changers in human life. People were no longer limited to a daily light/dark cycle. Thanks to Edison and his amazing light bulb, people could perform daytime activities well past dark time. So, on one hand, “Hooray for the Light Bulb!”. On the other hand, “Boooooo”.
LED lighting is far worse than the good ol’ fashioned light bulb because it emits much more blue light. The findings from LED lighting studies are of particular concern to psychiatry. Many mental illnesses are associated with circadian rhythm disruptions, including bipolar disorder, depression, seasonal affective disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, and ADHD.
Circadian timing cycles play an integral role in nearly all human physiological and behavioral processes, because virtually all cells contain clock components to produce circadian rhythms. Therefore, good physical and mental health requires both circadian synchronization with the environment, and system-wide internal circadian synchronization.
Melatonin is the chemical code of darkness, and study data crucial to the neuroendocrine system consistently showed that melatonin improves cognitive performance and age advancement. In Alzheimer's disease (AD) and Parkinson's disease (PD) neurodegeneration melatonin was shown to have preventative effects.
Chronic Health Problems
The term “circadian misalignment” describes a variety of circumstances, such as inappropriately timed light/dark cycles and misalignment of light/dark cycles with feeding rhythms. Misalignment occurs when the central circadian clock is not aligned with the light/dark cycle or when peripheral rhythms are not aligned with the central circadian clock. Since there is a direct relationship between uncertain light/dark timing and a disrupted circadian rhythm, unregulated schedules can increase incidence risk of chronic diseases.
At the beginning of this blogpost you learned that the circadian clock, ( the“Master Clock”) is connected to all the individual circadian clocks that run our body systems and their respective organs. These systems have their own circadian rhythms also known as peripheral circadian clock rhythms.
Right now, you’re probably asking “And your point is….?”
Well, chronic diseases develop when this network of rhythms no longer are playing their notes from the same music sheet. That’s the same kind of disharmonious misalignment that affects all the moving parts of your circadian rhythm which in turn can cause disease within a variety of organs.
Melatonin has often been referred to as the "darkness signal" when secreted in a circadian manner and is acutely suppressed by unblocked blue light rich artificial light at night
The image below illustrates how the main input is the light-dark cycle via the eyes and is the most important synchronizer to maintain a natural circadian rhythm. The outputs of the circadian system light/dark cycle is, among other things, the sleep/wake cycle, melatonin hormone secretion, and body temperature. These outputs occur like clockwork. The effects of the circadian rhythm also operate on a molecular level and are represented in the greenish circle.
One more very good reason to create a consistently timed release of melatonin by blocking blue light at night!
So, there you have it. Your natural circadian rhythm is your BFF. The blue light from your digital devices is the worst friend ever. Lose its number, defriend it on Facebook, block it from calling, and banish it forever with blue light blocking glasses. After that, you might even wonder why you ever tolerated blue light in the first place!