The Big Idea
Every day we essentially have 2 different states: awake and asleep. But how much dow we really think about sleep? Also, how much do we really consider when we sleep? Or for that matter when we are really awake?
Our bodies have an internal clock that helps set and regulate our daily rhythms: what and when we do things. This rhythm, called a circadian rhythm, is actually typically set to cycle every 24 to 25 hours. Cues in your environment including light, temperature, eating and exercise (called zeitgebers – literally “time givers”) actually help keep your body clock in sync with the rest of the World at roughly 24 hours. We all have slightly different circadian rhythm cycles what’s more these also tend to change as we grow and age from being a baby, to a teenager, to an adult right through to when we are in our senior years.
Together this means that there are certain times of the day that you will currently tend to be more inclined to sleep as well as other times that you are more alert, active and creative. For better or worse this may well be at slightly different times from others you live and work with. You may have come across terms like morning lark and night owl that reflect that some people find mornings easier and others nights. It is thought that there are some social evolutionary reasons for this but suffice to say that this means that if we are not careful we could be trying to be doing things that are just in not in sync with our own body’s natural rhythm, which, as well as feeing like trying to swim upstream, can actually be physically harmful to our health and dangerous to others. But turn this around. What if you could work more in rhythm (in sync) with your circadian rhythm? The science suggests that you are much more likely to be at your best, and enjoy it, if you can live a life in sync with your own body clock.
In The52Project we have actually already hooked into some key zeitgebers that help our bodies with setting and staying in our circadian rhythms – such as sunlight (#Tip4) and temperature (#Tip2). Sounds simple so far but we got to thinking what happens when you have to work outside your normal rhythm, like for work, being a parent or carer, or when you travel overseas? What of this can we take to make sure we stay healthy and perform best by working with our sleep / wake cycles (circadian rhythm)? How could we do this to get the most out of life; to be safer and happier in the process?
To help us to explore these questions we invited professional sleeper, commercial pilot, HIV positive activist and a super The52Project experimental partner James Bushe (aka @bushepilot) to talk about his experiences so that we might all get more in sync with our own body clocks and rhythms.
Got it…What’s the Science
Sleep is an incredibly important part of our brains’ activities. I mean why would ours spend so much time doing it if not? Sleep has at least 4 main functions that includes: helping us with our memory and learning new skills, regularly detoxifying our brain, helping us prepare for socially difficult situations and keeping us in sync with others in our tribe (family). In fact our brains are almost as busy when we are asleep as when we are awake. The key here is that there are certain times of day (and night) that are actually better for us individually to sleep so as to be better prepared for our waking hours. This also means that there are certain times of day that we are typically better suited to do certain activities than others. Typically morning larks are more alert and task focused in the earlier parts of the day, being less alert but probably more creative as the day moves from afternoon to evening. Night owls on the other hand tend to be the opposite, preferring to go to sleep later at night (sometimes into early the next morning) and waking later in the day. Research suggests about 40% of the population are morning larks, 30% night owls and the remainder somewhere in between. Obviously some are more at the extremes as circadian rhythms seem to be on a sliding scale, which is believed to have a genetic component. If one or more of your parents are a night owl for instance then you are much more likely to be a night owl too.
All cells, including those in insects, plants and fungi, actually have a sense of time and there are a myriad of genes that we now know as responsible for keeping cellular time and rhythms such as ones called period (PER), CLOCK and timeless (TIM) and TOC. So genetically a sense of and need for ‘cellular time’ dates back to when our ancestors were single cells – usually based on the fundamental rhythms of of daylight and it’s absence, which we tend to call night. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, when you put cells together to make up organs, they also have natural rhythms and cycles. We also know that cells and organisms have cycles that are generally in sync with the seasons which can include lunar cycles and tides. In the body these are kept synchronised by the brain acting like a bit like a master time keeper or conductor. A critical brain structure involved in this is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN for short. The SCN sits just above where the 2 optic nerves (those are the nerves that send visual stimulation to the brain) actually cross over before they continue to the deeper visual processing areas towards the back of the brain. The SCN is a relatively small structure of only about 10000 neurones (this is a small number in terms of the 86+ billion we have) and is incredibly sensitive to light: it can sense light levels even when our eyes are closed. This means our brains can set what is typically wake time with daylight hours. But you can already see here how the invention of artificial lights to lengthen our days have / could really upset our body clocks. This has undoubtedly placed a general strain and disconnect on us working with our natural rhythms.
Earlier this century some really committed scientists including Nathaniel Kleitman and his fellow researcher Bruce Richardson (1938) and later Michel Siffre (in 1962) wanted to test what would happen if they went away from sunlight and other body clock cues (zeitgebers), shutting themselves off in a deep caves to see what would happen to their circadian rhythms. Their results suggest that a body clock can still exist and cycle but that their psychological time, based on their unchecked clock, cycled at closer to 48 hour days (including sleep). Just earlier this year 15 volunteers spent 40 days in a French cave in an experiment called ‘Deep Time’. One subject, in absence of his usual zeitgebers, experienced days that lasted 40 hours…. If you are wondering what this has to do with the future of our species, we have just two words to say here: space travel. Also this says that our bodies are meant and still need cues to synchronise health and function.
Not knowing when to wake and to sleep can have some really drastic impacts on our health and emotional wellbeing as any new parent will tell you. You may also be someone who has experienced this when you are anxious about something and find it difficult to get or stay asleep. This is in part because this sleep is has it’s essential roles to play in our brain and body health and function but also because we can then be knocked out of sync. This creates stress in the body, and stress induces the further release of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is in fact a useful hormone in helping you wake up, but excess amounts all through the day, day in and day out, means that we place extra pressure on our cardio vascular system, as well as limit / reduce the repair of our body and immune system. In fact this stress response over a prolonged periods of time induced, by say a lack of sleep and / or being out of sync with your own circadian rhythm – like those that do regular shift-work, can lead to mental health issues like depression, loss of sex drive (libedo), poorer fertility, increased chance of getting sick including dementia and cancer.
There is significant research that suggest that regular well defined sleep wake cycles also lead to ease of better quality of sleep – better sleep leads to better health, psychological and physical performance, as well as emotional and social wellbeing. Also that the use of artificial stimulants such as caffeine (a psychoactive drug) can be ultimately really counterproductive here – contrary to certain energy drinks’ commercials.
Of course in the short term being out of sync is unlikely to be really damaging BUT it still has an impact on our days: our performance and our relationships. So what happens when we have to change when we work regularly – like when you are having to be up at different times of day and night, crossing time zones and are in charge of multiple people’s lives and a commercial aircraft?
James Bushe explains how in pilot training that they are encouraged to use zeitgebers that work well for them to help them more clearly define daytime and nighttime. This includes using bright sunlight and using blackout blinds, being more aware of and using the temperature of their environment between stop overs. This means that they can help their bodies to be more alert when they need to be. It also suggests that we can do the same to make sure we are maintaining and clearly defining our own circadian rhythms, whether we are morning larks, night owls or somewhere in between. It also highlights what Matthew Walker calls our own best kept secret superpower: sleep. So sleep and napping is a topic we will be returning to with James Bushe in coming #Tips.
Watch our #Tip24 on the Instagram Live Recording….
It is hard to see what is not to like about this one. It might feel inconvenient to begin with but we have clients and colleagues that have made some radical changes to work more in sync with their own circadian rhythms which has really radically results in their health, happiness and wellbeing – even their purpose.
This is also a #Tip to stack or rather to stack other #Tips to help set and maintain our daily rhythms. What #Tips, that could become habits or routines, do you think will be useful in you getting the most out of this #Tip? Do let us know – we’d love to hear from you.
Just a last word on health. If you find yourself regularly struggling with sleep, please do seek professional medical help. The reality is we all struggle with sleep at some point in our lives. This is not a weakness or a failing – there are further things that you can do to help. Please do also get in touch with us. We’d love to help.
Watch this space…
Related Top Tips