We lose an hour of sleep this weekend, and over the next couple of weeks will be adjusting to that shift to daylight time.
This week, we’ll be waking up before sunrise again and eating later in the evening, because we’re just not hungry for supper at six o’clock. Everything will be just a little bit off, as our internal body clocks try to catch up with the regimented requirements of modern life.
But no matter. We’ll have more daylight in the evening, when we’re awake to appreciate it. This will help us prepare to fine-tune our inner body clocks — every one of them — to longer, brighter days.
It was once thought that the brain controlled our body clocks, that any human-caused shift backward or forward on the sundial meant we had to reset that part of the brain that woke us automatically at 6:30 every morning, or at 2:30 a.m. if we had jetted over to Hawaii for the February break.
Research over the past decade suggests that the brain is indeed involved, but more as a master networking device than a solitary systems timekeeper. It seems many organs within our bodies measure the passage of time according to their own internal cellular timepieces, independent of what HQ in the noggin or the clock on the wall dictates. Cells within each of these organs track time throughout the day, and accordingly produce and release different amounts of enzymes and molecules at different times of day.
These many internal clocks control body temperature, heart rate, metabolism, sleep cycles and other integral bodily processes, with the time-keeping regions of the brain acting as conductor of this daily hormonal symphony. All of these many internal clocks are closely tied to circadian rhythm, which roughly follows the 24-hour pattern of the Earth’s day-to-night-back-to-day rotation. When synchronized, these cellular clocks keep our bodily functions ticking along and us performing at optimum levels.
Until they don’t.
When the inner clocks de-synchronize, problems occur. Sleep comes less easily or doesn’t stick around, hunger patterns change, heart rate and levels of stress hormones in the blood shift, insulin production in the pancreas gets out of step with what is happening elsewhere in the digestive system. Quiet mayhem ensues, with sleep disorders, cardiovascular disorders, metabolic problems such as obesity and diabetes, and mood disorders such as anxiety, depression and seasonal affective disorder rearing their nasty heads.
It’s not just we humans who suffer, although we’ve made things extra challenging with modern lifestyles and technologies. Many diverse life forms, including bacteria, insects, mammals and plants, keep time to the rise and fall of the circadian beat. The universality of the processes that track day and night within living cells indicate the processes have been around for a very, very long time. For at least 2.5 billion years, some researchers say.
And it doesn’t take much to miss-set the clocks. As satisfying as it might be to blame daylight time, every flip of a light switch before the sun rises or after it sets can play havoc with our inner clocks. Every late-night burger, early-morning bacon-and-egg fry-up and even a midnight ice-cream raid on the freezer can change circadian-clock genes found in the brain, the liver and fat tissue.
But there is hope. Last year, researchers in Colorado showed that it can take just one week of camping — far from electric lights, television and smartphone screens — to reset human circadian rhythms to the planet’s natural day-night cycle.
So, as you adjust to Pacific daylight time during these next few weeks, use the extra hour of daylight in the evening to search out a tent, sleeping bags and other outdoor summer gear. With warmer weather coming, now is the time to start planning a wilderness camping trip to reset and synchronize your inner body clocks.