How to train your internal clock

Getting plenty of sunlight can help regulate our circadian clock. Tammy Johnston, administrative assistant at SAIT Counselling Services shows the lamp that is used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. Genesta Walz Photo

The clock strikes 1 p.m., and Zaid Suradi frantically leaps out of bed, pulls on some jeans and a sweater, and races to class.
By the time he arrives, he’s 30 minutes late and is trying to ignore his empty, growling stomach.
Such are Suradi’s days during the academic year: late nights and irregular meals. Many post-secondary students follow the same chaotic lifestyle.
New research being conducted at Concordia University suggests the absence of routine in one’s day affects an intricate system of clocks in the brain and body. That is, besides the obvious health effects, like fatigue and lower metabolism.
Shimon Amir, a professor of behavioural neurobiology at Concordia, recently published a paper on the relationship between the primary circadian clock, widely known as our internal clock, and smaller clocks. The latter are regions of the brain that directly affect emotional and motivational states.
“What clocks do in different regions of the brain is they modulate neural activity, gene expression and metabolism,” said Amir.
The primary clock generates and co-ordinates rhythm according to a 24-hour period.
“The most common synchronizer of the master clock is the light-dark cycle, so it’s important to be exposed to light at the right time because the light is the stimulus that resets the master clock, the one that synchronizes the rest of the body. So exposure to light is very important,” said Amir.
Eating regularly is another powerful synchronizer of our clocks. When a person skips meals or has them at random times, a direct consequence is clock disruption.
“By affecting the components of the clock, various things that the clock controls will be affected, too. That can have all kinds of negative effects, both physiological and psychological.”
Some adverse effects include constant tiredness, less energy and inability to sleep.
A daily routine, whether it be eating regularly or a set sleep cycle, is important to maintain the constant rhythm of our biological clock and its subordinates.
According to Amir, even if you choose to eat only one meal a day but always at the same time every day, the clocks will be synchronized with this habit of feeding. Once the clocks are regulated, your body starts to feel hunger only once a day at that certain time.
Regardless of whether your routine is healthy or not, the mere existence of routine keeps the clocks from being disrupted. Fatigue, sudden hunger and inability to sleep at night are kept at bay.
One major result of clock disruption is something many people in Canada are all too familiar with: winter depression. Many students wake up late and find themselves getting less than three hours of sunlight per day. This disrupts clock rhythm, allowing no time for the clocks to reset and function properly.
“I’m seriously a victim of the winter blues,” said Suradi. “I’ve only been in Montreal three years now, and I’m so not used to such short days. Some days I don’t even get to feel the sun on my face.”
Amir suggested using certain light therapy lamps that work by emulating the rays of the sun.
“A lot of people use those kinds of lights for treating winter depression, just turn it on for a couple of hours while studying or watching TV and it’ll really help,” he said.
Those who really struggle with seasonal depression would benefit from investing in one of these lamps, said Amir. He also pointed out that people should make a considerable effort during the winter to soak in the few hours of sunlight that are naturally available to us.

Three easy steps to help you create a healthy routine
1. Eat regularly: eating at the same time every day helps avoid sudden hunger.
2. Find sunlight during daytime hours: exposing yourself to sunlight or light therapy lamps helps prevent depression during winter months.
3. Make a sleep schedule: waking up at the same time every morning and going to bed at the same time will keep your internal clocks synchronized.

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