Circadian Rhythms and Your Health
On Sunday March 8, 2015, at 2:00 a.m., we will set our clocks ahead one hour. Most of us will wake the following morning and many mornings after feeling drowsy or like we are “off” and in need of more sleep. This feeling of drowsiness will continue until our biological clock reprograms and adjusts to the new time setting. This happens because there’s been a disruption of our natural circadian rhythms, and your internal clock is still saying that it is one hour earlier than what the actual time on the alarm clock reads.
Because of the earth’s rotation, almost all organisms function under 24-hour day–night cycles, called the circadian rhythm. However, it should be noted that this daily rhythm is not a simple response to alternating changes of day and night. It arises from an innate and genetically operated timekeeping system referred to as a “biological clock.” This biological clock prepares us for changes that occur in our physical environments and enables our cells and body systems to behave appropriately at the right time of day.
In mammals there is an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the anterior hypothalamus, and it functions as the master circadian pacemaker of the circadian rhythm, controlling when we sleep and rest, and when we are awake and active. Circadian rhythms also regulate body temperature, heart activity, hormone secretion, blood pressure, oxygen consumption, metabolism, and many other functions.
It is widely accepted that an adrenal steroid hormone called glucocorticoid (cortisol) has a daily variation in its circulating levels and is directly under the control of the circadian timing. In a normal circadian rhythm, cortisol peaks in the morning around 6:00 a.m. and cascades throughout the day and is at its lowest between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and midnight. This is key here, as this hormone called cortisol also plays a crucial role in our adaptive response to various types of stress.
Stress can be anything from getting in an argument with your spouse to commuting in rush hour traffic to beingexposed to a chemical such as mercury or lead. It can be due to a wide variety of issues. There are three major types of stress that we experience: emotional stress, dietary stress, and pain and hidden inflammation/infection.
When we think about the main source of stress, it is usually emotional. This can be the death of a loved one, working with or for someone that is unpleasant, financialchanges, divorce, or moving to a new location. It can also be sitting in rush hour traffic as mentioned above.
Dietary stress (glycemic dysregulation) can be from diets that restrict calories for too long, overeating processed carbohydrates, alcoholism, and skipping meals. It can also come from foods that trigger an immune or allergic response like gluten, dairy, corn, or peanuts for example.
Pain and hidden inflammation/infection can be from known sources, such as physical trauma like motor vehicle accidents, sports injuries, and surgeries or diseases such as arthritis or bursitis (anything with an “itis” as an ending means inflammation). It can also befrom things that are not known, such as liver toxicity due to heavy metal exposure, infections that have gone undetected like parasites, and poor gut bacteria.
We as humans were not designed to endure chronic stressors as these listed here. We have not evolved to handle our modern day stresses. We have a system that was designed to run away from a charging animal or to throw spears once in awhile. To get up and run and climb away to safety and to survive. In fact all of our body mechanisms are designed to ensure our survival. That is why the stress response is called “fight or flight.
We were not designed nor are we equipped to sit in rush hour traffic daily or to actually sit all day at a desk staring at a computer screen. So when we are locked in these chronic stressors, we cannot deal with it, and we have a revved up system that is not able to act.
Cortisol levels then go up and stay up, and consequently we suppress our immune system and we cause blood sugar handling dysregulation. We’re no longer able to handle mental emotional stress as we should because we are stuck in this over-reactive mode. Any one or all three of these variables will cause cortisol dysregulation and adrenal burnout, and many of people that I work with in my clinic have all three of these variables.
When we constantly overstimulate the adrenals they become burned out, and the amount of cortisol available throughout the day and throughout our circadian rhythm cycle becomes altered. This is where the chronic health conditions come into play. Symptoms such as excessive fatigue, neck/back pain, inability to hold a chiropractic adjustment, hair loss, irritability, poor immune response, insomnia, cravings, female hormone imbalance, digestive issues such as diarrhea or constipation, inability to lose weight, headaches, depression, indigestion, light headedness, lack of concentration, anxiety, food allergies, environmental allergies, dry skin, and poor memory can all be linked to adrenal burnout and an inefficient circadian rhythm.
I see this daily in my practice, and it is at that time that we run a lab-based saliva panel that actually tests the cortisol level several times throughout the day to determine what the rhythm is exactly and when it is deficient. There is a logical treatment option that does not treat symptoms but rather the underlining causes. This is functional medicine. People have chronic health issues that are not being addressed by mainstream medicine. These health issues require a lifestyle change. They also require changing the diet and healing the adrenal glands. If you are looking for answers to health issues for what modern society and its dependents have done to our bodies and to our health, look to finding out the health of your adrenal glands and addressingthe imbalances of them.
Heidi Toy is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, and the owner of “Educated Nutrition”, located in Altoona, WI. Her focus is helping people heal holistically, with an emphasis on autoimmune