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The importance of a healthy body clock

The following article was written and submitted by Anne Graham


These days, we seem to think that we can manipulate our bodies into doing whatever we want. Stay awake all night? Fine, we’ll bombard our brains with caffeine. Sleep when we’re not tired? No problem, there’s a pill for that. Lose weight? Easy peasy, you simply ignore your stomach. Ill? Just bung a load of paracetamol down your throat and get on with it.

In practice, of course, we all know that none of these things are particularly pleasant – but we do them anyway. Why? As a general rule, when something feels ‘wrong’ for your body, it is. You don’t necessarily have to like everything that’s good for you (if this were the case, we’d all be eating ice cream and chugging wine 24/7!), but if something feels intrinsically bad for you, it’s generally best to listen to what your body has to say on the matter. Yet, when it comes to listening to our body clocks, we don’t.

Of course, sometimes external circumstances conspire to mess up our body clocks. If we work peculiar shifts, we frequently find ourselves struggling against nature by any means possible to remain awake and alert despite the confused pleas of our bodies. And those on certain drugs, or recovering from addiction, may need help getting their body clocks back on track. Under such circumstances, it’s understandable that your body clock may be struggling to make sense of a confusing time, and messing you about in the process. However, if at all possible, it’s a very good idea indeed to try and get your body clock in order as naturally as possible. Why? Well, partly to ensure that you’re getting the right amount of food and sleep – which alone are good enough reasons to make an effort in this matter. But also because the health of our body clocks rebound throughout our entire bodies and minds.

Let’s start with mental health. Two of the chemicals your body clock uses to provoke reactions in your body and brain are cortisol and serotonin. Cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’, while serotonin is known as the ‘happiness chemical’. In a body clock context, serotonin and cortisol flood the brain as we wake up – but serotonin is more involved in awakening when we experience stimuli like natural light. Serotonin not only wakes us up but, as a side effect, also promotes positive moods. Serotonin, you see, is a dual-purpose chemical. It not only makes us more wakeful, but also increases brain activity generally, and makes us feel more positively about things. This is why low serotonin levels are associated with depression. However, if you have to wake up without the natural stimuli of sunlight to help you out, your body instead wakes you up using cortisol without the moderating influence of serotonin. While serotonin wakes you up by motivating you for the day ahead, cortisol wakes you up by stressing you out. Needless to say, this is less than brilliant for your mental health. If your body clock in general is out of whack, it’s likely that your levels of cortisol and serotonin will also be unbalanced, leading to mood swings and a whole host of mental health nasties. Not to mention the fact that you’ll probably find yourself sleep deprived, which on its own is pretty appalling for you in a whole host of ways.

Then there’s the appetite factor. One of the things your body clock does is tell you when to eat. Your body clock and your metabolism are so intrinsically linked as to be almost indistinguishable. Mouse studies have shown that mice with poor body clocks are incapable of maintaining ‘metabolic homeostasis’ – i.e. a regular and healthy appetite and weight. The implication is that those whose body clocks are not up to scratch will be less able to distinguish when they are and when they are not in need of food – often resulting in overeating, obesity, and all the problems which accompany those. So important is your body clock to your appetite and metabolism that experts say you can overcome jet lag (which essentially results from massive body clock confusion) by altering your mealtimes. This ‘resets’ your body clock to the specifics of the new time zone. Whether or not this works as well as some claim is open for debate, but the underlying point – the intrinsic interconnectedness of appetite and body clock – remains very valid.

So, a poorly functioning body clock means appalling sleep patterns, a messed up appetite, potential weight problems, and potential mental health problems – alongside all the other nasty side effects which accompany sleeplessness and appetite issues! Not pleasant. Luckily, getting your body clock into shape isn’t too tricky. It’s all a matter of routine, and listening to your body. Simply:

  • Try to go to sleep at roughly the same time every night.
  • Try to wake up at roughly the same time every morning – naturally, if possible.
  • If you have to wake in the dark, try installing a natural-light-simulating alarm clock or something similar in your bedroom, to wake you up in the way nature intended.
  • Try to eat your meals at reasonably set times, and avoid too much snacking in between meals unless you truly are genuinely hungry.
  • If you take any medication (particularly SSRIs, which work with serotonin), try to take them at the same time every day – preferably not in the evening.