Time Rules Life

Body clocks, diet, and cancer.

Posted Aug 09, 2018

Timing Matters
Source: theformfitness/pexels

Time rules life, and body clock medicine is back. New research is reviving interest in body clock health and performance, letting a public habituated to a “time-free” 24/7 lifestyle recognize their internal time can no more be ignored than their heart, muscle, and brain. Diet and cancer are two prominent areas for body clock research. 

But will the interest last? Body clocks change your appearance, performance, health, energy and love life. The challenge is to get people to intelligently use them.


Satchin Panda’s new book The Circadian Code is getting some of the attention it deserves. One of a long line of popular primers on how body clocks affect health (mine came out in 2001),  it points to ways where intelligent behavior and medical treatments make for greater biological intelligence, the ability of the body to create and use knowledge.

Recent studies looked at the “time window” within which people eat, when in the day they began to eat,and when they finished. Aided by a processed food industry exquisitely aware of how people’s food patterns become habitual, much of the population jointly looks at screens and snacks at night.

One study only changed the timing of when people eat. Pre-diabetic men were allowed to eat inside a twelve or six hour window. Their “dinner” took place before 3 PM.

What happened? The shorter window provoked decent weight loss. But these men felt less hungry; had greater insulin sensitivity; looked like they had more immune responsiveness; and showed marked drops in blood pressure.  In essence, timing their meals tightly made their biological indices appear younger.

Were researchers surprised? Only a little. Studies in the 1960s done in the U.S. Army where inductees got one big, single meal a day–breakfast, lunch, or dinner–found those who ate in the morning lost weight, while those who ate at night gained.

Insulin production is higher in the morning, lower at night. Many of the body’s trillions of body clocks (there’s at least one in each cell, including the 40 trillion bacterial cells that vastly outnumber yours and affect your weight and mood) engage each other in a complex dance with different major clocks for every organ.

Yet it’s very hard to make people stop eating post afternoon. Though programmed caloric restriction may increase the lifespan of worms and rats and make monkeys look younger, very few humans try it. Food is a large part of human civilization. Going against most cultural culinary dictates is a hard road.

However, the bottom line for public health is more easily understood: eat breakfast. After a night of sleep your brain and red blood cells are crying out for the glucose that is normally their sole fuel.  People who eat breakfast generally have an easier time losing weight. Pushing more of your calories to earlier in the day, and eating less at night, helps weight and health; shift workers have far more illness, so much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) has often wanted to declare shift-work a carcinogen. 

When you eat may be as important as what.  Time also critically affects cancer.

Cancer and Body Clocks

Thirty years ago many oncologists were excited by body clock cancer treatments. Tumors grew more quickly at certain hours. Side effects could be sidelined by intelligent timing of doses.

Then much of the research petered out.

New attention has come for three basic reasons. First, the realization that cancers may be caused by body clocks run amok. Not just through human behavior, by through oncogenes.

It appears quite a few cancer promoting genes ultimately succeed when body clocks are disrupted. More interestingly, they perform much of the disruption themselves. Hijacking the circadian controls of a cell makes it easier for a cell to turn cancerous.

So it’s now becoming obvious some cancers persist by deranging out body clocks as part of their basic strategy–reason two.

Reason three is the realization that changing gene expression by controlling body clocks, or redoing the clocks of cancer cells, can provide effective treatment. Dr. Panda at Scripps and others are finding that targeting body clock genes can directly kill cancer kills.

Yet few clinical oncology trials actively use circadian medicine. The complexity of figuring out individual body clocks is part of the problem. Another is convenience.

People don’t like to come for chemotherapy in the middle of the night. Nor do their caregivers.

Technology may come to the rescue here. Infusions can certainly be shifted to precise times, assuming someone has an IV. And simpler ways of recognizing body clocks of different cell groups are appearing. 

Bottom Line

Paying attention to body clocks can make people healthier, more productive, more energetic, thinner, and less prone to cancer. But first they need to be acknowledged. 

Much of artificial intelligence and telecommunications run to industrial, not human time.

People don’t usually understand that looking at their cellphone at night does more than knock out melatonin production. It changes their weight, their energy, their focus. Yet habituation to social media and 24/7 work schedules continues to burgeon.

It’s sad to recognize people are more prone to pick up their cellphones at night than have access to lifesaving body clock treatments, yet that is how we are. Learning what biological intelligence is, and how to make our bodies smarter, should help. 

What you do is what you become.  Remember, timing always counts.