Thursday, December 01, 2005


At about 4 A.M. I wake up and start my day. At first the routine is rigid -- flick on the hot water dispenser, wash face, boot computer, mix a mug of instant coffee spiked with powdered milk, sweetener and Ovaltine loaded with vitamins and minerals, then fill up the mug with hot water from the dispenser spigot. Next, I surf the Net on the computer while leisurely sipping the hot coffee. Two hours later at about six a.m. the stomach makes a few rumbling noises, a prompt to proceed post haste to the toilet seat. After doing my thing and washing up, I’m back in front of the computer ten minutes later.
At a quarter to seven, I turn off the computer to prepare for the first of the day’s chores, feeding my five pet mongrel dogs. Conforming to the tight schedule is accomplished without mechanical aids. Well, not exactly. I glance at the computer clock before signing off
At first I used an alarm clock to form into habit my sleep/wake cycle. After a few weeks, the body rhythm was set, and I wake up unaided, rendering the alarm clock redundant. The six o’clock rumbling prompt, however, initiated its own schedule and thereafter became quite demanding. I learned from experience that ignoring the schedule was messily unwise.
By this time my awe of the clockwork precision of the sleep/wake and stomach rumbling processes was compelling and decided to look deeper (mostly in the Web) into this phenomenon of involuntary body functions such as breathing, heartbeat, hunger, and, of course, the potty urge. The effort led to a fascinating adventure into chronobiology. It seems we humans (and other living creatures) have a natural body clock, and we can ignore it only at our own peril.

Tick tock goes the body clock
Modern medical science has an expanding branch of Chronobiology --- the study of rhythmic processes inside living creatures --- that has emerged as a new way of thinking about life and death. It is now known that all living creatures including humans, exhibit biological rhythms. Some are short and can be measured in minutes. Others last days or months. The peaking of body temperature is a daily rhythm; the menstrual cycle is a monthly rhythm.
The master timekeeper in our bodies helps synchronize us with such cycles as day and night and coordinate hundreds of functions inside us. A biologist specializing in circadian rhythm says the body maintains billions of internal clocks that regulate daily peaks and troughs of blood sugar level, enzyme production, hormone synthesis, temperature, heart rate, metabolic pathways, sleeping and eating patterns, and mental acuity. There isn’t a function in our bodies that doesn’t have its own rhythm. The absence of rhythm is death.
All of us follow a general pattern of peaks and troughs, but the exact timing vareies from person to person. A lack of awareness about these rhythms can aggravate medical symptoms and hinder early diagnosis. By studying and increasing our knowledge of our individual rhythms and let them set the pace of the day we can enhance or reduce risks to our health, and live a happier life by organizing ourselves to work with our natural rhythms
Best (peak) times of the day:
Morning – cognitive tasks, manipulating words and figures mentally
Afternoon – manual dexterity, body temperature, learning for long term memory, memorizing speeches; peak adrenalin and cortisol, hair and nails grow fastest
Afternoon to early evening – coordination and response, peak sense perception of taste smell, sight, hearing and touch, liver active
Midnight to early morning -- short-term memory (cramming)

Although chronobiology is not new to medical science, it's still in the process of being accepted by the medical community. That's because most doctors are not taught about chronobiology - they are taught something that seems to contradict it. The prevailing concept taught in medical schools is one of homeostasis, meaning that the body is held constant.
The worst time of day when health risks are greatest is from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. the time when heart attack and stroke is most likely to occur, and also for asthma, bronchitis, cancer and emphysema.. The danger of heart attack happening two to three hours after awakening is explained this way. While sleeping, blood pressure and temperature drops. But when awakening come morning, the body gets a surge of chemicals called catcholamines. Heart rate increases and blood vessels constrict, raising blood pressure and reducing blood flow to heart muscle and might cause ischemia or angina, even sudden death from myocardial infarction. At this time, the blood is near its peak in thickness Blood platelets are most likely to stick together and tend to clot. If arteries are coated with hardened plaques of cholesterol, some fragments may break loose and cause the clots leading to heart attacks. The stress of preparing for work and sending kids to school adds physical stress and emotional tension.

In The Body Clock Guide To Better Health, the authors list more than 30 conditions and diseases affected by body rhythms, and the worst times of day for certain symptoms:
Midnight-6:00 a.m. – Asthma, Migraines, Gallbladder attacks, Heartburn, Kidneys slow down urine rate so lower dose of medication; slow saliva secretion allows bacteria to grow and mouth stink
6:00 a.m.-noon - Hay fever, Rheumatoid arthritis, Heart attacks, Immune system weakest, Noon-6:00 p.m. – Osteoarthritis, Blood pressure, slowest reaction speeds,
6:00 p.m.-midnight – Backache, Skin irritability
Chronobiologists have found that the severity of symptoms varies throughout the day. By keeping track of these variations one can schedule doctors' appointments and daily activities like exercise, at optimum times.
Franz Halberg, M.D., who is known as the father of chronobiology and who coined the term circadian rhythms, says blood pressure readings, which vary throughout the day, provide an example. "At a yearly doctor visit, a single blood pressure reading can be perfectly normal. You can be completely asymptomatic at the time, but still be at high risk for stroke," says Dr. Halberg.
One of chronobiology's most significant impacts on medicine is chronotherapy, the synchronization of drug delivery with body rhythms. This involves both restructuring the times of day existing medications are taken and developing a new breed of "body time-savvy" drugs called chronotherapeutics. "Certain ones have special drug-delivery technology -- their release is synchronized to the peaks in the disease symptom cycles to help manage symptoms more effectively," says author Smolensky.
"We should be tracking our moods, our alertness, and even our children's sleep cycles". "Body rhythms are part and parcel of our existence." By staying in tune with the most important clock of all, we can lead a healthier, more harmonious life.

Travel over many time zones creates mental dissonance. Jet lag lethargy is a striking example of the disruption of the circadian rhythm, as modern-day travelers experience when they fly over many time zones. Airlines have exerted steps to minimize the discomfort (it cannot be eliminated), partly through the diet. The theory is that protein meals trigger the body’s production of catecholamines, chemicals the brain needs for activity. High carbohydrate foods increase the levels of serotonin and tryptophan that help the body fall asleep.
According to experts, jet lag is most severe in people past 45 years of age, exactly such groups as diplomats and businessmen travelers entrusted with important political and business decisions.
The body’s circadian clock is controlled by the hypothalmus, a tiny structure in the brain.. Through a complicated series of molecular processes, it serves as a pacemaker for a variety of cyclical functions, including sleep-wake cycles, body temperature and the secretion of hormones like melatonin, a substance secreted by the pineal gland, a peanut size structure in the brain. It is known to control the biological clock and instrumental in establishing the daily rhythms.. Melatonin secretion drops with ageing, and by age 60, is only half the amount produced at age 20. Coincidentally, there is a growing enthusiasm for taking a food supplement containing melatonin believed to slow down ageing, boost sex life and inhibit growth of cancerous cells.
“All drugs are poisons, what matters is the dose” - Paracelsus, Swiss doctor, early 1500
For example, the modern wonder drug Botox popular in cosmetics is derived from the botulism toxin (a hazard in the canning industry) a deadly substance even in minute amounts. When doctors prescribe drugs, the Rx includes intructions specifying how often and how much dosage is to be taken, often with the words “with meals” to regulate absorption. However, it ignores the ups and downs of the body clock that can optimize the effect of the drug if synchronized with cirdadian rhythm.
The myth of the existence of “larks” or morning people and “owls” or evening people has been proved true and confirmed. Morning people show heart rates peak between 1 and 2 p.m. while evening people peak between 5 and 6:30 p.m. Larks perform best during morning hours when their adrenalin stimulant production is highest. Owls improve performance towards evening.
In earning a livelihood, some are required to work shifts --- regular (8a.m. to 4 p.m.), night (4p.m. to midnight), graveyard (midnight to 8a.m.). Many contracts between a company and its labor union have collective bargaining agreements that specify rotating workers to the cycle of three one-week shifts. According to chronobiologists, this has adverse effects on the workers, as they don’t get a chance to adjust to their cycles of the previous week. But many organizations have schedules that suit their operations but ignore the effects of workers’ circadian rhythm on individual efficiency and alertness. Shift work is suspected as a prime cause of accidents, notably the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Bhopal blast, Three-Mile nuclear accident and the Exxon Valdes grounding oil spill.
Even the 5-day work, and certainly the Ate Glue extended holidays policy, tend to create disruptions to body clocks of working individuals during weekends. The break from work tempts them to enjoy the weekend and make sudden changes to the normal weekday routine schedule of mealtime, work and sleep, by staying up late Friday and Saturday.
Studies also show that body clock woes may lead to some chronic diseases, notably diabetes and obesity. Personally, I have long ago learned to obey my body signals and prompts, and that old dogs can learn new tricks.

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