Bill West, RN comes home to sleep after working the night shift. He just started working at night and has trouble thinking clearly. He wakes up at 12 noon in a cold sweat. He just remembered that he didn’t give his patient, Jones, his heart medicine that was due at 4:00 AM. He rushes to the phone to report the error.
It’s December and Susan Smith has the winter blues. She usually gets them at this time of year. She craves sweets, overeats, and feels low-energy. Only this time she feels so depressed she can’t work or do her normal activities. She calls in sick and goes back to bed.
Larry Jones flew from Los Angeles to New York to close the deal on a new merger. He feels groggy and disoriented after his flight that crossed three time zones. He chugs down some coffee and takes a few deep breaths as he prepares to walk into the meeting. He hopes he can get his mind focused.
What do these three people have in common?
They suffer from disturbances in their body’s natural rhythms.
Science has long known that all living things (ants, animals, plants, tiny microbes, and us) follow rhythms prescribed by their genes. These gene-expressed rhythms govern our physical energy, performance, and mood.
External rhythms also govern us. Key among these rhythms is the earth’s dance with the sun. The sun’s light affects us as the earth spins on its axis creating the sun-lit day and the dark night.
The waxing and waning of sunlight affects us as the earth makes its yearly rotation (including tilt of its axis) around the sun, causing our seasons.
Scientists call the daily rhythms responding to the light and darkness in our environment circadian rhythms. The term circadian comes from Latin words that literally mean around the day.
Light turns on or turns off genes that control our internal biological clocks. These many body clocks consist of groupings of interacting molecules within cells. A master clock controls our body’s circadian rhythms by synchronizing all the many body clocks.
The master clock consists of a group of nerve cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. Its located in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain just above where the eyes’ optic nerves cross.
The graphic below is courtesy of National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
Bill, Susan, and Larry all experienced disruptions in their natural circadian rhythm termed circadian rhythm disorders… interfering with their natural healing system.
Bill’s was related to shift work, Susan’s to the diminished sunlight of the winter season, and Larry’s to the rapid changes of time zones, or you could say, “light zones.”
Here are the most common circadian rhythms disorders
Shift Work Sleep Disorders can develop from being awake during times that your natural circadian rhythm indicates you should be sleeping such as working the night shift or frequent changes of shifts.
Rapid Time Zone Change (Jet Lag) results from rapid travel across time zones, where your internal clock doesn’t have time to catch up causing grogginess and/or disorientation.
Sleep Disorders result in problems with sleep timing or quality.
Mood Disorders can be related to circadian (24-hour rhythms) or seasonal light change. A common example is seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
If you suffer from a circadian rhythms disorder, you can sync-up your natural biological clock with these science-based solutions:
Light Therapy is fast becoming the preferred method of treatment by many mental health professionals for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It can help with other mood disorders too, such as major depression, depression related to pregnancy, and the depression of bipolar disorder (if carefully monitored).
The most common form of light therapy is light box therapy. This therapy delivers intense light indirectly to your eyes at prescribed times and levels. The intensity of light produced should match that of the outdoors shortly after sunrise or before sunset.
Dawn simulation, a newer type of light therapy, is currently under study. With this treatment, you receive less intense light exposure during the final period of sleep. A computerized timer turns on a lamp that simulates an actual outdoor springtime dawn.
Both types of light therapy affect the body’s biological clock, suppress melatonin secretion, and have antidepressant effects.
Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. Taking melatonin to reduce jet lag is probably the safest and best-tested use of the hormone to date.
Physical Exercise at about 60-minutes a day can be as effective at light therapy for seasonal affective disorder.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps you work with thoughts and feelings to improve mood and enjoy better health. Therapists use a variety of techniques depending on your needs.
Sleep restriction therapy (may be used where sleeping too much is a problem)
Sleep hygiene (helps identify and work with practices, habits, and environmental factors important for getting sound sleep)
Negative air ionization is a new treatment option with similar effects as light therapy. It requires high-density ions applied with specific techniques.
It’s important to know and work with your natural circadian rhythms.
To illustrate, are you a lark (morning person) or an owl (evening person)?
What time of day do you prefer to get up and go to bed?
What time of day do you function at your best?
Knowing and working with your natural circadian rhythm helps you to be healthier and more productive. Visit the Center for Environmental Therapeutics website to take an online questionnaire to determine your natural circadian rhythm. (see the link below).
Bill, Susan, and Larry provide real life examples of how your internal biological rhythms connect to the rhythms of the cosmos through sunlight. When the harmony of this connection is disrupted, or your internal biological clock is out of balance, your health may suffer, your performance may decline, and you’re more likely to make errors.
Do you think you might have a circadian rhythm disorder?
If so, try one or a combination of the treatments above. If you have a serious concern consult a health care professional.
Most importantly, stay in tune with your natural rhythms. When you can’t be in tune, use one or more of the treatments above until you can re-sync.
Synchronize your biological clock with the cosmos!
Center for Environmental Therapeutics, “The Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire,” at: http://www.cet-surveys.org/Dialogix/servlet/Dialogix?schedule=3&DIRECTIVE;=START.
Michael Terman, PhD, and Jiuan Su Terman, PhD, “Light Therapy for Seasonal and Nonseasonal Depression: Efficacy, Protocol, Safety, and Side Effects,” CNS Spectrums 10, no. 8 (2005): 647-663.
National Institutes of General Medical Sciences, “Circadian Rhythms Fact Sheet,” http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Publications/Factsheet_CircadianRhythms.htm (accessed January 2, 2010).
WebMD, Michael W. Smith (reviewer), “Sleep and Circadian Rhythm Disorders,” http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/circadian-rhythm-disorders-cause (accessed January2, 2010).