Each of us has a circadian clock that uses a roughly 24-hour rhythm that coordinates with the Earth’s light-dark cycle and sleep schedule. Light sensitive cells in the eye’s retina send information to the brain’s master clock, which readjusts daily. The master clock regulates systemic cues like body temperature, eating patterns, and even fluctuating hormone levels, which are then used by distant, peripheral cellular clocks throughout the body to fine-tune their respective molecular pathways so as to be in synchrony with the master clock phase. The resulting, cyclical patterns can be seen in everything from our behavior to our blood-sugar levels. And when the coordination persistently goes awry, the phase difference between the master and peripheral clocks can manifest as chronic, degenerative diseases.
Initially, scientists thought these broken circadian clocks were most concerning in night-shift workers, flight attendants, and frequent flyers—people whose jobs resulted in large and regular disruptions to their sleep-wake timing. But research seems to be revealing that, to some degree, all of us are being affected.
In 2015, a group at the University of Pittsburgh showed that, even in daytime workers, there is a linkbetween a disruption in circadian rhythm and known metabolic risk factors for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Roenneberg was not surprised. “We had already known from various epidemiological and experimental studies that metabolism—and especially glucose/insulin metabolism—is challenged by living against one’s clock,” he told Reuters. By regularly changing the times we sleep, wake, and eat, we break the synchrony that our master clock sets for the peripheral clocks throughout the body. Instead of following the master clock, they align with our social clocks, disrupting the highly interconnected and complex pathways of human physiology.
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