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It’s time to stop putting the clocks back, argues academic

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Dr Gisela Helfa, neurobiologist with a specialism in circadian rhythms, pictured in a laboratory at the University of Bradford

Why our 24-hour 'lights on' culture puts our circadian rhythm in the shade

 

Dr Helfer is a neurobiologist with a specialism in circadian rhythms, the natural process which regulates everything from sleep to blood pressure, digestion and much more. She says the annual clock change in March and October is akin to putting the entire country on jetlag twice a year.

The senior lecturer in Physiology and Metabolism says it affects people’s moods, appetite and even results in an increase in accidents. Links have already been discovered between our internal biological clock and body weight. Shift workers have higher incidences of obesity. Midnight snackers might not be able to properly digest the food they eat. Office workers don’t get the sunlight they need. It can even extend to road traffic accidents. The list goes on. As does the inventory of conditions linked to a poor circadian rhythm: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, even some cancers.

Our modern 24-hour 'lights on' culture does us no favours either. 

“We all have this internal bio clock,” says Dr Helfer. “All living things have it, from plants to humans, even bacteria. It means you wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night. Even before you wake up, certain hormones are released by your body. So, your blood pressure goes up, the sleep hormone melatonin, which comes from your pineal gland, is shut down, your breathing becomes faster, your heartbeat picks up. All of this is governed by your circadian rhythm.”

In fact, as Dr Helfer explains, every function of the body has its own specific ‘time’ and when we deviate from these, things start to go wrong in other ways.

“If you get up in the middle of the night and eat when the body thinks it's fasting, the body has to adapt to that very quickly and that affects every other physiological function. If you do that once or twice it’s not a problem, but if you do that continuously, it can cause diseases. We have about 52 diseases now linked to circadian disruption.

“Our rhythms are kept in tune by the environment and every morning our bio clock is reset. This is part of our evolution. If you imagine your body as an orchestra, with your brain as the conductor. As long as the conductor, the brain, has control over every instrument, the organs and tissues, your body works well.”

It’s not just late night snacking that has a dire effect on our health - the biannual tradition of moving the clocks introduced during the First World War has a deadly side effect, in particular an increase in fatal road traffic accidents. Dr Helfer believes we should do away with the clock change altogether.

“You are basically putting the entire country on jetlag twice a year,” she explains, pointing to a recent study by University of Colorado Boulder published in January 2020, which shows a six per cent spike in fatal car crashes in the week following the ‘spring forward’ clock change and points to worrying spikes in heart attacks, strokes and workplace injuries.

“The statistics are mind-blowing,” says the 45-year-old, who grew up in the mountain village of St.Johann im Pongau, near Salzburg, Austria. “Work related accidents increase in the week after clock change. If there’s a good economic reason, fine but otherwise, it’s just nonsense.”

Read more about this story and why Dr Helfa thinks naked mole rats are the “coolest” animals on the planet and what they have to do with her research into circadian rhythms here. Every month we will br profiling a new academic and showcasing their area of research.

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