Circadian rhythms — related to, but distinct from, biological clocks — are roughly 24-hour cycles in our own bodies and those of other organisms. They’re usually synced with cycles of light and dark — think sleeping and waking.
Our pineal glands, which produce melatonin, are activated by darkness. Since melatonin is the hormone responsible for regulating our sleep cycles, excessive nighttime exposure to light (especially blue “daytime” light that comes from smartphones and other screens) can really interfere with our circadian rhythms and our sleep.
In fact, nighttime light has been linked with a whole host of problems like obesity, decreased mental clarity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
“Your body is like an orchestra,” Dr. Samer Hattar, a professor of biology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and an expert in circadian rhythms tells GrindTV. “You have clocks all over your body — in your stomach, in your liver, in your brain.
“The best thing is when these clocks are synchronized, and when you really mess up the clock, what you’re doing is creating an orchestra without a conductor, where everybody’s playing on their own with no synchrony at all. You can just imagine the difference,” he continues.
On top of helping to keep our “orchestras” harmonious, natural light cycles and temperature shifts are two of our bodies’ key indicators of time. Life with modern amenities affords us climate control and ever-present daylight, dulling innate cues to our most fundamental human behavior.
Which other survival instincts are we surrendering to technology? Probably quite a few, says Hattar.
“All of these behaviors are subconscious, and humans have an ability to make connections that are completely wrong because they are based on conscious observations that just happen to be there when something happens,” Hattar explains.
Not only are we prone to forming inaccurate cause-and-effect connections, but we often fail to make them at all: “With food [for example],” Hattar tells GrindTV. “Even though you eat stuff that makes you miserable, that makes you sluggish, you still eat these foods. It’s an evolutionary design and it’s not perfect, so there are a lot of problems with us being in tune with our inner selves.”
Scientists discovered that circadian rhythms play a huge role in monarch butterflies’ notoriously epic migratory habits. And once upon a time, humans weren’t really so into settlements. We were hunter-gatherers who went where the food went, and that kind of lifestyle, if not exactly migratory, requires a pretty keen sense of direction.
Is it possible that people who spend more time outside, and whose circadian rhythms are on point, are more in tune with deep-set instincts like sense of direction? Are those of us who pass our days in the company of fewer screens better equipped to survive in the wilderness?
“I could imagine that when we didn’t have compasses and we didn’t know how to navigate, just like the butterflies, we may have had to use some external direction [points]. I would imagine that we used the circadian clock to figure out direction. That’s a possibility, although I’m not sure that that’s the case,” Hattar admits.
What he is certain of is that our circadian rhythms have an enormous impact on our behavior — not just daily, but throughout the day.
“I tell my undergrads, ‘You’re not the same person in the morning, at noon or [at the] early evening hour. You not only change behaviorally and physiologically, but also hormonally and genetically,'” he says. “We are not the same people every time of the day, so we have to ask that we do much better at different times of the day.”
On the most basic level, our bodies and brains are designed to function at higher levels during daylight hours, and a disrupted circadian clock can make us less alert, more forgetful and just generally sluggish.
In fact, that’s exactly why we experience jet lag. This could lead to all sorts of physical and mental blunders, from making wrong turns to tripping and falling.
Fortunately, the best way to hone your circadian clock is something that most of us do regularly: Spend time outside. Hattar says that even the most high-tech bulbs can’t replicate true sunlight’s color and intensity (both qualities that factor into our bodies’ understanding of time of day).
Avoid wearing super-dark shades (at least some of the time) when you’re outside, because all of this happens through our eyes.
According to a University of Colorado Boulder study, a week’s worth of camping will effectively reset your circadian clock.
And finally, you should try to limit your light exposure to very dim and red-tinted light at night, especially immediately before bed. If late-night screen time is unavoidable, you can download apps like f.lux to block blue light.
“It is quite remarkable to me that light, which we take for granted, can cause such a disastrous effect on our physiology,” Hattar says. And maybe on our Eagle Scout skills, as well.
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