Knowledge of circadian rhythm influence on the human body has grown rapidly. Directly targeting the biological clock or using timing as a variable in drug therapy are now important considerations when treating patients.
For example, in rheumatoid arthritis therapy, application of modified-release prednisone in the evening (with drug release during the second half of the night) reduces peak levels of inflammatory cytokines during the night, thus maximizing pain relief and effectiveness of the medication (4).
Similarly, many surgical interventions benefit from taking into account a person’s internal clock. For example, major complications associated with certain heart procedures are lower when surgery is performed in the afternoon instead of in the morning (5).
Interventions or medications targeting major common diseases such as hypertension, cancer, asthma, and arthritis also benefit from a ‘timed’ approach (6).
Different patterns for different people
Are you a night owl, or an early bird, and what’s better in terms of health?
Being an early bird has long been associated with better health outcomes: better sleep, balanced hormones, greater focus, and attention during the day.
Night owls have greater brain activity later in the day, and often struggle to maintain the same focus and motivation during the hours of the socially-accepted daytime and workday. Early birds tend also to have fewer health problems than night owls, who have higher rates of chronic disease and metabolic conditions (7).
Should night owls try to shift their sleeping patterns?
It would seem that early risers have the clear win for health outcomes, but evolutionary biologists think that being a night owl isn’t necessarily a problem—unless you’re trying to adhere to a schedule that doesn’t align with your natural internal clock.
For example, early humans may have been more likely to survive if different members of their group had naturally varied sleep schedules. If not everyone falls asleep at the exact same time, then some members can stay awake and maintain watch over those who are resting.
To reinforce this idea, a study of a modern-day hunter-gatherer tribe found that during a three-week period, there were only 18 minutes during which all of the 33 tribe members were asleep simultaneously. They also found that temperature changes were the most significant regulator of sleep patterns—something that’s almost obsolete in our modern environment (8).
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Tuning your circadian rhythm for better health
The best things you can do for your health and longevity are simple: prioritize sleep, a moderate intake of healthy food, and encourage regularity in your routine with sleeping, eating, and exercise.
- Keep a routine that works for you. Food and your sleep schedule influence your enzymes, genes, and metabolic regulators, which provide feedback to keep circadian rhythms stable.
- Take screens out of your bedroom, and keep it cool. Devices used before bedtime are one of the biggest disruptions to hormones normally produced as a precursor to quality sleep. And studies suggest that decreased environmental temperature might be the biggest factor regulating sleep.
- Go to bed at the same time every night. Your circadian rhythm likes a consistent structure and routine.
- Match indoor light exposure to that of your outdoor environment as much as is practical. Light exposure in the evening, not just blue light, alters the function of your circadian clock rhythm.
Other facts about circadian rhythm
Children are more sensitive to light, especially at night. Even slight exposure to light can suppress the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin by as much as 90% in preschoolers in the hour before bedtime (9). This decline in melatonin reduces restorative sleep, increases cravings for junk food, and may negatively impact development.
Circadian rhythm also rejuvenates skin cells. Sleep patterns are an important regulator of the metabolic processes that allow stem cells within the skin to thrive (10).
Anti-Aging with Integrative Medicine
Science is perpetually on a quest to discover the next exciting thing to turn back the clock on aging. New research indicates it’s not a product or procedure, but the ability to recapture our “young” circadian rhythm that not only reduces the risk of disease but keeps us feeling and looking great, too. This internal biological clock is highly sensitive to diet and lifestyle. Therefore, the revision of our daily lifestyle related to biological rhythms, including when we eat, our sleep/wake cycles, and even when we exercise, could be paramount for healthy aging.