Sitting down to coffee with a woman at the retirement center the other day, she remarked about the crane working on the tower of a building nearby. I’d never seen the crane move and as we have a similar view, I asked how she came to see the work being done. “Oh.” She smiled. “I’m a night owl. I don’t go to bed until around 2 a.m.
As my eyelids become sealed at 10 p.m., I’d never seen nor would see my friend’s a. m. view because, as scientists tell us, most humans are predisposed to be either early birds or night owls. (“Out of Sync,” by Emily Laber-Warren, Scientific American Mind, Sept/Oct, 2015, pg. 34.)
The internal clock that dictates our sleeping and waking habits are in part, inherited, but the largest factor influencing us is our sensitivity to light and dark. Get too far out of sync with our relationship to the natural world and we court everything from feelings like jet lag to chronic insomnia. The condition is called circadian misalignment — circadian being Latin for “about a day.” (Ibid pg. 33)
We’ve all known about the circadian clocks in our bodies and how inventions that extend our evening activities — like the light bulb, television and computer gadgets — tend to disrupt our health. Several diseases have been traced to this disruption. Mood disorders and impaired judgment are two examples. But obesity, diabetes, breast cancer and inflammatory bowel disease are a few others. (Ibid pg. 38.) Simply put, when we betray our internal clocks — we have more than one and some recently discovered at the cellular level — we invite poor mental and physical health and possibly, an early death. (Ibid pg. 34) In one case, a study of circadian misalignment in mice provided results, “so clear and predictable that they [the disruptions] could be used to pinpoint time of death for an unmarked sample of brain tissue.” (Ibid pg. 35)
Staying up late, snacking, sleeping in on the weekends seem like harmless variations in our day, but they can flip a biological switch, leading to unwanted effects. Here are a few tips for keeping your clock properly wound: Spend time in low lights a few hours before bedtime to encourage sleep producing melatonin. Note that the blue light emitted by computers, computer gadgets and television mimic the blue light of morning, so they send the drowsy brain the wrong signal; eat breakfast, preferably near a sunny window; go to bed and rise the next day at the same time every day, including weekends and shift the main meal to breakfast or lunch; avoid heavy aerobic exercises before bedtime. (Ibid pg. 35.)
Simply put, we are biological creatures of the caves, attuned to the rhythms of the earth’s rotation, a reliance we share with every living entity on the planet, including plants. If we attempt to escape our destiny, we may find ourselves staring out into the night, watching cranes at work.
(Originally posted 11/11/2015