Body Clocks Change Your Health—But They Can Be Fixed

Understanding how time rules life, and what you can do about it.

Posted Jun 14, 2018

Andrey Grushnikov/Pexels
Source: Andrey Grushnikov/Pexels

Time rules life, and body clocks direct and define much of yours. 24 hour (circadian) clocks continue to be implicated in most aspects of human health, joy, and performance. A recent British study out of the UK Biobank of 91000 people recently refocused attention on how disruptions in body clocks play out in depression and mood, loneliness, happiness, overall health and physical speed.

Time and Mood

The British study garnered much media interest partly because through using the kinds of accelerometers found in people’s cell phones, it demonstrated how most people can pick up this type of data for themselves.  What they looked was dysrhythmicity: how the normal amplitude of human existence, working, talking, working in the day and sleeping at night, gets flattened towards no difference between night and day.  Even relatively small decreases in amplitude–day and nightlife commingling–was associated with major depression, bipolar disorder, mood instability, as well as loneliness, lower happiness and health satisfaction scores–plus slower reaction times (athletes, please note.) As in other Biobank studies, the authors were able to control for variables like socioeconomic status, sex, alcohol, body mass index and childhood trauma.

Disrupted time and disrupted mood are well-known bedfellows. Depression causes disrupted body clocks and disrupted body clocks strongly influence depression.  In the 1990s Tom Wehr and colleagues could “flip” people with bipolar illness between depression and mania simply by changing their bedtimes. Much of the public does not know that light therapy in clinical trials bests SSRIs like Prozac in treating "regular" depression. In those with seasonal depression, the effectiveness of light as a treatment is directly related to resetting internal clocks.

In many ways, the Biobank study measured elements that are proxies for insomnia,  being up at night and sleepy during the day. Insomnia occurs with almost any psychiatric and medical illnesses and generally makes all of them worse. And one of its main treatments is resetting your clock.

When internal time is disrupted, much else goes wrong.

Body Clocks and Loneliness

Does loneliness change body clocks? The Biobank certainly makes the association, and loneliness is now getting recognized as a far more important health problem.

The Ipsos/Cigna survey of 20,000 Americans recently found about half the adult population answered they sometimes felt lonely and “left out.”  A full 43% thought their relationships not meaningful, 27% that they felt rarely understood.  The survey numbers were worst in the group between the ages of 18 and 22. Many recent studies have argued loneliness by and of itself strongly impacts survival, with one famous/infamous study of 2010 declaring severe loneliness had the same effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (The Week 5.18.18).

How is loneliness directly related to body clocks? The strongest effect on internal human clocks comes from light.  However, social interaction–meals, waking with others, seeing friends–also have strong effects setting your clocks. Having friends has a lot of healthy effects, which can include resetting inner time.

Cause Or Effect?

Headlines regarding the Biobank study declared disrupted clocks “cause” mood swings, depression, and decreased self-reported happiness. Certainly there is a large literature that fouling up 24-hour clocks is associated with mood changes, greater weight, and diabetes, GI and heart disturbances. The truth is that disrupted clocks exacerbate most health problems and that health problems rejigger your body clocks. The end result is a very unvirtuous cycle where one problem exacerbates another.

Many a pain patient can’t sleep at night. Many an asthmatic wakes up at three in the morning with their worst air hunger. Disrupted sleep and disrupted inner clocks do far more than make people sleepy, tired, cranky and irritable. They also set you up for more health problems of many different stripes.

Body Clock Therapy

What to do? The quarter of the adult population doing shift work knows very well how body clocks define their lives and their health. Now it’s again “time” for the rest of us to acknowledge the significance of body clocks in our lives. 

The basic rules of thumb fit human design and our innate biological intelligence. We’re meant to sleep at night and be awake in the day.  We do better with lots of light, especially in the morning. We perform and live better when we’re physically active in the day, not during the times we’re meant to sleep.  We perform far better when not awakened by cellphones.

Clinicians have known this a long time. Much of the benefit of hospitalization may lie in the “routine,” the beginning and end of the day at set times, meals at set times, activities at set times.  Body clocks are reset many different ways.

So be kind to yours. They time your life and set the timing for everything you do. The simple act of having set wake and bedtimes can improve your physical and mental health, and your performance.

With regular body clocks you’ll probably feel and look better, and may even lose weight. Not bad for following simple rules of human design.