Our sleep-wake cycle and full day-night functions are regulated by a smart, resident inner bio-clock that drives us all. What propels our bio-clock has mesmerized generations — right from the days of philosopher-scientist Aristotle. The working of the bio-clock is apparent not only through the process of our sleep-wake cycle, but also the regulation of body temperature, tolerance to pain, hormone levels, response to drugs, or medications, besides a variety of emotional deviations, such as depression, at the time of new and full moon nights. These biological rhythms represent changes that systematically recur in us — they include the daily ebb and surge of biochemical levels in the blood and reproductive cycles, among others. Research corroborates that every physiological or functional aspect of our bio-clock rises and falls with computerized regularity, or precision. Such bio-rhythms, as they are also called, represent a perfect, delicate balance. So much so, a bio-clock that goes kaput can trigger, or lead to, a host of health deviations or disorders.
The frequency of our bio-rhythms relates to the duration of one complete cycle, or the number of cycles per time unit. There are three primary types of rhythms — viz., ultradian, infradian and circadian. The first ‘cadence’ encompasses periods that are less than 24 hours — for example, cardiac and breathing cycles. The infradian rhythms include our reproductive cycle, extending longer than 24 hours. Circadian rhythms, such as the sleep-wake cycle, have approximately a 24-hour cycle. The study of these biological rhythms is called chronobiology.
Research has also surmised that the pineal gland and its hormone, melatonin, are the ‘seats’ of such a sequence — one that regulates and maintains our different body rhythms. This includes their synchronization with one another and our external environment. The levels of melatonin in depressed patients, to cull an example, reveal not just reduced values, but also a distinct variation in our body rhythms. Melatonin is a ‘chronobiotic’ substance. It has the ability to reset desynchronized body rhythms back to normal. One classical example is ‘jet-lag’ — the inability to resynchronize our body rhythms with the time of our destination. No wonder melatonin has become a ‘panacea,’ as a low-dose supplement, for easing jet-lag, without the side-effects of prescription sleeping pills.
This brings us to the rapidly expanding field of chronotherapy, the use of circadian or other rhythmic cycles in the application of therapy, where time, or timing, holds the key. The whole idea is also like ‘tuning’ into our body’s rhythms. To draw a baseball exemplar, chronotherapy is somewhat analogous to a batter’s swirl of the willow, where timing makes or breaks one’s ability to score runs at will. Put simply, chronotherapy is based on the therapeutic premise that by heeding to our body’s rhythms, or bio-clock, we could make medical treatment less toxic and, at the same time, more effective and safe. Take for instance, asthma, which has a strong predilection to quivering its victim for a ‘wheezy’ ride during the night when mucous production escalates, the bronchial airways go into a ‘spasm’ and inflammatory cells exemplify their discordant presence with frenetic intent.
Why this ‘wheezy’ wheezing spree? Most asthmatic individuals endeavor to keep a steady level of medicine in their blood — day and night — with small doses. New research has shown that a fairly large medicinal dose of any asthmatic medication would be just as safe and effective as multiple small doses — perhaps, even better for averting night-time attacks. A similar principle holds ‘good’ for hypertensive (high blood pressure) individuals, who have a proclivity for elevated blood pressure readings at daybreak. As statistics reveal, heart attacks and strokes are twice as common at 8:00 a.m. as at 10:00 p.m. — the reason being our blood pressure falls, as a matter of physiology, at night. It tends to peak as we brace ourselves up for yet another hectic day in the chronicle of life told and retold.
Studies also suggest that our cardiovascular functioning is least efficient between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. while platelet constancy, blood pressure and pulse rate are characteristically at their peak two hours after we wake up. Elevated plasma cortisol, a common consequence of stress, likewise, ‘ups’ around 6:00 a.m. It progressively declines to its lowest level late evening, before escalating again early morning, while the secretion of vasopressin, the anti-diuretic hormone, reaches its acme during the night, resulting in decreased urine formation.
Most blood pressure drugs provide 22-24 hours ‘action.’ What does this connote? When such drugs are taken in the morning, they are least effective when most needed. It’s therefore, as research suggests, imperative, even obligatory, for one to stick to a specific time for taking their anti-hypertensive pill. If you take your pill, for example, at 8:00 a.m., it is working by 10:00 a.m.; but, by this time you’ve gone through a ‘bad’ four hours of the day without any fortification. This is reason enough why a bed-time dosage is sometimes recommended to prevent such a ‘glitch,’ albeit this could also ‘drive’ blood pressure levels to disturbingly low levels during sleep. So, is there a better way out of the impasse? Yes, an anti-hypertensive drug, a long-acting pill, that releases no medication until four hours after it is ingested. When you take the pill at bed-time, you ensure peak protection at dawn, while forestalling the typical ‘drawback’ of night-time dosing.
New exciting research suggests that our circadian bio-clocks may share a familiar descent — the build-up of oxygen in the atmosphere 2.5 billion years ago may have possibly determined the evolution of our circadian rhythms. In addition, scientists have, only recently, identified a protein, which they aver, could be a strong marker of circadian rhythms, although they are not certain as to what actually ‘causes’ such rhythms per se. What has now given them a huge reason to smile is a common model that provides a feedback loop. The latest twist to the bio-clock tale has, therefore, unmistakably become medical science’s ‘new-fangled’ blueprint — the basis for circadian rhythm research in the future.
What adds fascinating substance to the novel prospect is a South Korean research team has stumbled upon and identified a new gene responsible for maintaining our internal bio-clock. In a collaborative project, the team led by Choi Joon Ho and Lee Jong Bin, and comprising of Ravi Allada and Lim Jeong Hoon of Northwestern University, US, experimented with transformed small fruit flies for four years. They found that there was an undiscovered gene that ‘deals’ with bio-rhythms in the brain and acts as a sub-atomic bio-clock, regulating the rhythm and life of each cell. The landmark finding is a novelty by itself — it has laid the path to explain scientifically the precise role of the protein produced by the gene. The upshot is expected to resolve some of the most knotty questions associated with sleep disorders, jet-lag, eating patterns, bio- rhythms and so on.
Picture this. Our 24×7 life is wreaking havoc on our restful, sound sleep. Sleep is meditation. It is also therapeutic. However this may be, most of us are overworked — for all the wrong reasons. We are also missing out on our essential sleep time. We are waking up at 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. to check e-mail, send messages, or working odd shifts, or just getting up too early, or suffering from jet-lag, thanks to our ‘frequent-flier’ tag.
What’s more, our ‘chock-a-block’ lifestyle is upsetting the applecart of our circadian rhythms, no less. The outcome? We often present with circadian rhythm disorders (CRD) — the raison d’être for being insomniacs, to pick one example, or being a proud ‘envoy’ of an increasingly sleepless society, living on the edge of a health breakdown. This is the bad news. The good news is all of this, and more, is poised to change dramatically, thanks to the new finding — the bio-clock gene. It holds an exhilarating prospect, a paradigm shift, for chronotherapy — one that could help ‘reset’ our bio-clocks back to its pristine and sublime balance.
Insomnia by Maarten via Flickr Creative Commons