It’s not uncommon to find our body clocks going haywire due to erratic sleep patterns, long working hours, and excessive exposure to artificial light. But recent studies suggest that aligning our internal clock, or circadian rhythm, with the natural day-night cycle can be instrumental in reducing the risk of cancer.
What is the circadian rhythm?
It is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats approximately every 24 hours. It is influenced by environmental cues, such as sunlight and temperature. The term “circadian” is derived from Latin, where “circa” means “around” and “diem” means “day”. Essentially, it reflects how our bodies are attuned to the 24-hour day.
Research over the past two decades has shed light on the connection between the circadian rhythm and cancer. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2017 was awarded to researchers who made breakthroughs in understanding the molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.
When our internal clocks are disrupted – a state known as circadian disruption – our bodies may produce hormones and proteins at the wrong times. For example, melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and has anti-cancer properties, is produced in lower quantities when the circadian rhythm is off. Similarly, the production of cortisol, a hormone that regulates immune responses and inflammation, can become imbalanced, potentially encouraging the growth of cancer cells.
Circadian disruption can be caused by various factors, including shift work, jet lag, and exposure to light during the night. These disturbances can lead to a host of problems such as sleep disorders, mood swings, and metabolic issues. More critically, epidemiological studies have shown that people with chronic circadian disruption are at an increased risk of developing cancer.
Adjusting your body clock
Here are steps you can take to align your circadian rhythm with the natural day-night cycle:
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. Consistency reinforces your body’s sleep-wake cycle.
- Get morning sunlight exposure. Expose yourself to natural light in the morning for at least 20-30 minutes. This helps to reset your internal clock and improve your sleep quality.
- Create a comfortable sleep environment. Make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep – keep it dark, quiet, and cool. Consider using blackout curtains, earplugs, or a white noise machine.
- Be mindful of your diet. What you eat and when you eat can affect your sleep patterns. Try to eat meals at regular intervals, and avoid heavy meals and caffeine in the evening.
- Exercise regularly, but not before bed. Regular physical activity can promote better sleep. However, stimulating activity too close to bedtime can have the opposite effect.
- Limit exposure to screens before bed. The blue light emitted by phones, tablets, and computers can interfere with your sleep. Try to avoid these screens for at least one hour before bed.
- Consider talking to a healthcare professional. If you have persistent trouble sleeping, talk to a healthcare professional. They can offer specific advice or treatments to help regulate your sleep patterns.
Adjusting your body clock to align with the natural day-night cycle is not just about getting adequate rest – it could be a key factor in reducing your risk of cancer. By understanding the significance of the circadian rhythm and implementing strategies to maintain it, you can take steps toward safeguarding your health and well-being. While lifestyle adjustments can have a profound impact, always consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice and information.
Ellen Diamond, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.