Health

The Science Behind The Body’s Internal Clock


We know that our bodies' internal clocks govern our hunger - the times when we need our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But is it possible to reverse this cause-effect relationship? Can we make our choice of food alter and reset our bodies' internal clock?

Our internal clocks - also known as circadian clocks - not only regulate our hunger but also have a significant influence on our energy levels, digestion, and many other biological processes related to different times of the day. The circadian clock is kept in control by a delicate and complex balance of hundreds of chemical/hormones secreted at different times of the day, in different combinations and proportions - each being influenced by a particular environmental factor. Complicated to comprehend, much less decipher, right?

However, recently new studies conducted in the field indicate that we may be able to set our biological clocks backward or forward by a careful selection of what we eat at a given time of the day.

Relationship between circadian clock and health

Our internal biological clocks play an important role in governing our preferred times of rest and repose, the times of peak alertness, as well as the times of several daily physiological processes like food digestion, bowel movement, etc.

In the usual course, the clock remains adjusted to the environment to facilitate the utmost expression of genes during the daytime and allowing for some level of suppression during the nighttime - helping living beings stay in tune with the planet's rotation.

However, sometime this balance can be thrown off the kilter; for example, after a long distance flight between destinations with a significant difference in time zones. Such a chronic desynchronization between our physiological rhythm and the environmental factors results in a drastic drop in our physiological performance till we get our biological clock readjusted to our new environment.

Sometimes, due to health conditions or poor lifestyle choices, if this clock remains disturbed for a prolonged period of time, we may get exposed to a considerable risk of debilitating diseases, such as, diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, sleep disorders, and even cancers. Therefore, it is of prime importance to figure out solutions to being able to rest our circadian clocks when required - to facilitate harmony between our bodies and the environment that we're in.

Role of insulin in adjusting the body's internal clock

A recent research into the role of insulin in regulating and adjusting the body to a new circadian rhythm has revealed that insulin-mediated phase-wise tuning of the internal clock may be a feasible solution. The answer lies in the delicate relationship between synchronization of mealtimes and tissue functions, which, in turn, can promote effective digestion and absorption.

The circadian clock can be understood through a double-pronged theory. The first is that our bodies respond to light. This has been well understood by scientists and researchers all over the world. The second is that our bodies' physiological processes respond to food. This angle, as of now, is not as well understood or researched as the previous one.

However, an experiment conducted by some Japanese scientists has revealed that insulin, a pancreatic hormone secreted in response to feeding, may be involved in resetting the circadian clock.

The researchers' findings provide crucial information and open a new floodgate of further research and solutions on making use to dietary manipulation to adjust the circadian clock.

For example, the worldwide problem of jet lag for long distance travelers could be worked around by smart dietary changes - beginning just before travel and continuing several days after completing the journey.

The idea is to alter insulin levels in body, through food, to train your bodies to wake up and remain awake during the new daytime and be able to relax and rest during the new evening time. This can be achieved by having a dinner enriched with ingredients promoting insulin secretion, which would help in phase advance of the circadian clock, while having a breakfast that's low on such ingredients i.e. one that suppresses insulin secretion.

Based on these newfound results, the researchers hope to bring forth new treatments for treating circadian disorders and developing customized diet programs for patients with circadian-disorders.

The findings have an exception to the rule too - researchers indicate that clock adjustment through feeding might not work well in people with insulin resistance, such as, those suffering from diabetes 2, as the body chemistry of such individuals may respond differently to insulin. Also, any side effects related to circadian clock adjustment through insulin need to be explored thoroughly before the idea could be developed into a practical solution.

Strategic snacking as a way out of circadian disruptions

These findings point at interesting takeaways on how we can adjust our biological clocks better by employing a little strategy during food selection. For example, we may be able to shift our biological clocks into the sleep state by partaking of foods that promote insulin secretion, such as, carbohydrate-rich pasta and spaghetti or keep our bodies in the state of wakefulness by preferring foods that contain natural fats and proteins, and limit insulin secretion.

Long distance air travelers can also use this tactic to bring down the duration and the intensity of their jet lag. A little insulin tweaking could mean a well-rested arrival. Spiking your insulin levels by taking a large portion of carbohydrates during dinner, when travelling eastwards, and suppressing your insulin secretion by taking a protein-and-fat breakfast, when traveling westward, can help reset your internal clock faster. However, further studies are needed in order to better establish the efficacy of this solution.
(Image: Thinkstock)
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