Meditation & Health #24 – Understanding Our Inner Body Clock
Understanding Our Inner Body Clock
By Xi Yu & Nicole Leo
“It’s more important to understand the imbalances in your body’s basic systems and restore balance, rather than name the disease and match the pill to the ill.” -– Mark Hyman M.D.
The evening primrose only blooms at night, bears and snakes hibernate during winter, maple leaves turn red during autumn, and fireflies camouflage during the day. How do these natural phenomena occur? Ever wonder what governs the internal rhythms and behavioral cycles of living beings?
The Science of Natural Cycles
Human knowledge of an internal biological clock within living organisms has existed for a long time. The first recording of such an observation was in 1729 by French scientist Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan. Intrigued by the movements of the leaves of mimosa plants, de Mairan’s experiment showed that the mimosa, when kept in constant darkness, continued to open in the day and stay closed in the night. This revealed a “clock” existed within the plant, separate from the external stimuli of sunlight.
In 2017 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went jointly to geneticists Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young. The scientists discovered that molecular mechanisms control the circadian rhythm, also known as the internal body clock.
Using fruit flies as their models, the trio isolated the gene that controls the flies’ daily biological rhythm. This gene, called the “period gene,” encodes a protein that is stored within the cell during the night and degrades during the day. They went on to identify other protein components that work this way, revealing the wheels that drive clockwork in living things.
The geneticists’ groundbreaking discovery extends far beyond fruit flies; it is also applicable to other organisms, including humans. The fact that we work in the day and rest at night is not purely the convention of society, but embedded within our genes. This explains why our wellbeing is affected when we deviate from our internal clock, for instance, when we experience jet lag. Sustained and severe enough, this deviation could contribute to disease and general ill-health.
TWisdom of Our Ancestors
Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) during ancient times demonstrated profound understanding of the biological rhythms of the human body. Rooted in the philosophy of harmony between human and Nature, the Chinese believed variations in human bodily states were in sync with natural rhythms. The ancient Chinese medical text Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor is a sacred reference for the body’s circadian, lunar and annual cycles, and its meridian system, upon which acupuncture therapy is founded.
According to TCM, our natural rhythms are closely related to the flow of qi and blood within our bodies and Nature’s timing. Each of 12 main organs function optimally at different two-hour blocks of the day. For instance, the meridian related to the gallbladder is most active from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., and the liver meridian takes over from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Since ancient times, it has been known that our various organs have a strict schedule of self-care and self-regulation, carrying out their processes at specific times of day and night. Planning activities and living life by the internal body clock boosts our health, productivity, and even our moods.
Our body clock regulates critical functions such as digestion, metabolism, hormone levels, sleep, and body temperature. Recent studies have shown that developing our daily patterns in accordance with our natural rhythms can help to increase our energy levels, immune system, and work or study efficiency.
In Sync With Our Internal Clocks
Modern life is characterized by the 24-hour society; we do not think twice about working overtime, taking rotating shifts, staying out past midnight, and boarding a red-eye flight. These behaviors adversely affect our circadian rhythm.
Research has shown that genetic factors and our external environment can affect our chronobiology. Professor Randy J. Nelson of Ohio State University reveals that those regularly exposed to light at night, such as nightshift workers, may experience sleep disruption, obesity, gastrointestinal problems, metabolic disorders, depression, and even an elevated risk of cancer. While we can recover quickly from occasional temporal disturbances such as jet lag, if we constantly fight our natural body timings with improper resting and eating habits, this may lead to severe health problems.
Therefore, maintaining a healthy daily cycle is crucial for good physical and emotional health. To that end, we can leverage our body’s response to light to reset ourselves. Before sleeping, dim the lights to prepare for bed and avoid watching television or using your mobile phone. Sleep in as much darkness as possible as our bodies are programmed to sleep more easily when it is dark.
Camping for Health
The modern environment disrupts the natural flow of our internal body clock. Artificial lighting after sunset contributes to late sleep schedules. Connecting with mobile phones and other media devices in our daily lives disturbs the natural circadian rhythms and can leave us feeling fatigued.
Researchers at the University of Colorado found that a weekend of living and sleeping under the night sky can shift the body’s internal clock to sleep earlier and may help us to combat insomnia. Their study results showed that melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep, came on earlier in those who were camping. It appears that sleeping under the night sky retunes us to the natural cycle of light and dark, allowing our fundamental physiology to exist in a state of harmony.
Immersion in Nature and exposure to natural light reset our internal circadian clocks to align with solar time. Our biological night begins when the sun sets and ends when we wake up at sunrise. Accepting the sun’s natural rhythm is a way of optimizing mental and physical health. Living in accordance with the inner body clock is necessary to walking a path of wellness.