Sleepless World – What biorhythmic tunes does the orchestra of clock genes play in your body?

Polar night season ended officially in the whole of Finland on January 18th. It was the period during which the sun stayed below the horizon in northern Lapland for nearly two months. Also, in southern Finland, as winter approached, the hours the sun climbed over the horizon steadily decreased. In Mid-December daylight-time had dropped to 6-hours.

On March 20th we reached another important day-light milestone when the day and night are equally long (equinox). Now here in the North days are getting longer and nights shorter. Many people enjoy the energy boosts of increasing daylight.

Our sleep-wake cycle is affected by natural light. I belong to those people whose total night sleep time is on average more than one hour longer during winter time. In the summer I tend to wake up at sunrise, which near midsummer is really early!

As the sun gradually climbs higher and higher over the horizon during daytime my thoughts are on Spring. I see with my mental eyes how white wood anemones seem to pop up overnight to form a beautiful flower mattress in our nearby forest. With birch tree leaves just budding, the white flowers enjoy the sun; their flowers wide open like stars. As a little girl I remember playing in a green sea of flower stars. In the evening the flower petals close and start nodding. “It’s like they also go to sleep”, I used to think with a five-year-old’s logic. Science has shown that also flowers sleep

Circadian rhythms of different living organisms have been studied for decades. Research by Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young has provided an important key for unravelling the biological mystery of what makes organisms tick in a certain rhythm, approximately (but not exactly) of 24 hours. Their pioneer work, awarded with the Nobel prize in Medicine and Physiology in 2017, was carried out between 1984 – 1998. This research gave light to the molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm. My old acquaintance ­ the banana fly ­ helped in finding relevant pieces of the biological puzzle related to e.g. the sleep-wake cycle.

Every time the banana flies emerge from my compost, I remember the important role this tiny insect has played in science. In addition to helping in identifying clock genes important for different biorhythms, much earlier studies on the banana flies’ different wing and eye forms were significant milestones in genetics. I personally first read about these studies in the early 1970’s (in my high school Biology text book). I was also inspired by microscope pictures showing chromosomes obtained from the salivary glands of the fly.

With continuing research, a multitude of clock genes have been discovered in the different organs and tissues of the human body. A complex neural and humoral signaling system is affecting the different biorhythms of humans and their interplay. This is synchronized by a region in the midbrain (the suprachiasmatic nucleus SCN) just above the area where the optic neural tracts partly cross before they continue further through the central areas of the brain and finally fan to the visual brain areas situated in the back (occipital area) of the brain. Click this link for a cool animation on the optic nerves.

Circadian vision

The optic nerve or vision nerve is a high capacity input broadband bunch of nerve fibers. It streams external information sensed by the neural cells in the retina of the eye to be further handled in the brain. Humans also have specific photoreceptors in the eye retina that can detect even minute changes in natural light. This information is streamed to the midbrain SCN where it is further processed. Our circadian vision provides the information on the changing light of day and night to the SCN. This synchronises our internal biological clocks with the natural day-night rhythm in which we are living.

In addition to the circadian rhythm driving our sleep-wake cycles, all our different body organs and physiological processes have their own biological clock rhythms. They are not exactly the same as the sleep-wake cycle. The bimolecular processes orchestrating the pacing, timing and synchronising of these different biological clocks are so complicated, it boggles the mind. The central conductor ensuring that the orchestra of our different bodily clocks play in reasonable biorhythmic harmony is the mid-brain’s SCN structure.

The rhythms of life

As internet crisscrosses more and more densely our globe, people are increasingly exposed to a non-stop stream of different types of data flowing in the tightly woven digital networks. Someone somewhere is always awake. The number of people that are awake at odd hours and against their personal sleep-wake rhythm is steadily increasing. In this 24/7 open global world people face the risk of developing Sleep and Circadian Rhythm Disruption (SCRD). While many different factors play a part in the development of different illnesses, the negative effect of SCRD to health should be taken seriously in this era of globalisation and digitisation.

In addition to frequent flying back and forth over time zones and doing shift work, also societal jet lag mixes up biorhythms. This develops when people working in global settings hold teleconferences early in the morning, late in the evening and in the wee hours of the night. If one is not careful it is also all too easy to get tangled into the clutches of the always awake internet bursting with stimuli. Exposure to constant bombardment of different types of information results in mental and cognitive overload and a physiological high-gear state. In this overdrive mode a person becomes sleepless due to inability to calm down needed to fall asleep. Prolonged societal jetlag and SCRD means serious business to one’s performance and also, in the long run, to health.

Some of you may have seen the film Lost in Translation. An aging movie star is sleepless in Tokyo and clearly also suffers from jet lag. The jet-lagged zombie-like numb feeling in which one is in slow mode, dragging one’s feet, lacking mental sharpness and gumption, is a familiar feeling to those who have fly-hopped over several time zones. On arrival (and several days onwards) one is still very much in the mode of a totally different time zone than the one in which one has ended up. The traveler’s individual biorhythms have become uncoupled from the day-night cycle that they are used to. The normal circadian network of the body has fallen apart. In their 2014 research paper The rhythms of life: what your body clock means to you, Foster and Kreitzman present a good metaphor on what happens to a frequent flyer: “Your stomach ends up over Peking, your liver is somewhere in Delhi, while your heart is still in San Francisco.” And where might your brain be? For those interested in lectures, click this link on Foster’s speech.

For our bodies, travelling by ship over the Atlantic would allow our biological clocks to be gently re-tuned by the time we reach the other shore. Strain on our body’s biorhythms is caused by being repeatedly exposed to circumstances in which there is a mismatch between the external societal time and our biological clocks. This strain also occurs when we are in a different day-night mode than the environment around us. The strain first expresses itself with different types of bodily symptoms. They include sleeping problems, sweating, heart palpitations – even arrhythmia bursts, stomach pain, anxiety, irritation, dizziness, emotional instability, decreased physical and cognitive performance. 

The curse of summer and winter time

In 1895 Georg Hudson, an insect researcher and astronomer, proposed the idea of moving clocks one hour ahead as Spring arrives in order to gain more daylight at the end of day. This procedure to produce daylight saving is more commonly known as summer time. In the fall the time is changed back to standard time (“winter time”) that follows more closely natural sunrise times. Gradually many countries adopted this maneuver.

We all see how this “clock-boot” affects our society. All types of schedules and time-stamps have to be updated. But do we realize what even this one-hour change means to us humans? Our inner biological clocks never tick in exact seconds and don’t adjust with a “snap of the fingers” into a new mode. That’s biology. For me personally, it takes about a week to adjust to this jumping from winter to summer time and back. The EU has now decided to stop this stupidity. Individual EU member countries have to decide which time they will adhere to. In Finland the question which to choose, summer or winter time, resulted in heated debates in social media.

Do you know your chronotype?

Are you a chirpy morning bird or a night owl? A recent research paper (Wittenbrink et al 2018) describes a circadian clock blood test: The biomarkers of a single blood sample can provide information on whether you are an evening or morning person. My thoughts on the near future: A Chrono-Tinder in which people could provide info also on their natural chronotype. Are you looking for a person full of pep in the morning or one who enjoys late evening activities? Maybe we will in the future have a dating application that connects people with matching chronotypes. Maybe finding a suitable life-style that works for both would in some cases then be easier.

How to improve sleep quality in a sleepless world and avoid prolonged SCRD?

How to implement research into practice? I am often asked about quick fix tips for improving sleep. There is no one solution or piece of advice – magic wand ­ with which to make things right. My suggestion to solving problems is to first identify them and then rise to the challenges of the digitized 24/7 open world. Take matters into your own hands and redesign the ways of living and doing things. Changing habits doesn’t come easy. So, I vote for taking small steps towards identified goals of habit change.

Redesigning work and everyday life

Everyone experiences poor sleep every now and then. We humans do not have an on-off button that changes our mode from sleep to wide awake in an instant. Being aware of one’s own chronotype can help to stay in a reasonably good biorhythm. IF one listens to oneself, that is! Pausing to have a look at one’s everyday life habits might provide a key to needed change(s) that will also improve sleep. Are you in a Duracell Bunny mode? Is it time to slow down a bit? Is everything on the to-do plate necessary? Is something on the plate actually a distraction – hindrance – an important root cause causing the need to run through the day or work late to get the actually relevant things done. And thus, in the end, ending up in high-gear mode in the evening from which downshifting to relaxing just doesn’t come that easy.

Societal jet lag is a risk to societal and company success

A sleepy mind or clarity of thought?

Sleepy and overstressed minds don’t innovate, commit or engage. Research has unequivocally shown that the more one suffers from lack of sleep the poorer one is in evaluating correctly one’s performance quality. The risk of making errors and bad decisions increases with sleepiness and fatigue. Sleepy heads mis-read non-verbal signals in social settings. A person constantly lost in translation is not creative and isn’t inspired by new things.

Sleep improves problem solving and, in the morning, after a well-slept night, one can experience eureka-moments. Imagine an important negotiation situation in which the stakes are high. The representatives of company A suffer from a serious case of social jet lag while the key players of company B, sitting on the other side of the table, are well-rested with clear minds. Which company comes out of the room a winner? What’s your bet?

Research has shown that after a hectic work week, during which a person slept approximately 4-5 hours per night, decreases the person’s mental performance equivalent to being drunk with a blood alcohol level of about 0.5-1 ‰. So, a person rushing to a meeting after a long-haul flight might be negotiating an important deal in a clearly non-optimal foggy cognitive state. Do we really want our working modes to lead to this?

At work places sitting down together to discuss how work should be designed to support a balanced doing and idling way of working can be the key to better overall performance and increased productivity. Idling is not the same as being lazy. It is a pause needed to ensure optimal use of personal resources throughout the day. It can be a short coffee break with colleagues. It can be “my-time to think” our “our-time to think together”. The solution does not, however, work if the work cake is just too big to handle. So being realistic about the size of the piece from the work load cake that is humanly possible for an individual to “eat up” is important.

Are all telcos at odd hours, constant travelling over time zones and the need to be available 24/7 really necessary? Does this type of working culture increase productivity? I claim not.

All solutions that develop a working culture that lowers the risk of a total mix-up of the biological rhythms of employees support corporate wellness and prevention of illnesses. Habits are contagious. Walk your talk. If a leader or work buddy is saying that we all need to slow done and take time to rest and recover, but he/she is always hurrying around and scheduling telco meetings with people living in very different time zones, does anything change?

Rocking gently to sleep

Perrault and coworkers have just reported (2019) that rocking boosts night deep sleep (needed for recovery) and the positive effect of sleep on memory in healthy sleepers. They have also shown that gentle rocking during an afternoon nap facilitates transition from awake state to sleep by affecting brain neurophysiology.

My mental film on memories goes back to summer days when my father used to take daily naps in a hammock, gently swinging a bit between two pine trees. I have also experienced refreshing napping in a hammock. I think I’ll take out the old hammock from the closet and have ago at napping while swaying.


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