Author Mark Richards

Three American scientists have won the Nobel Prize for work on our circadian rhythms – more popularly known as our body clock. Their work has implications for all of us, and could affect our health and our work – as well as the time teenagers go to school… 

So what are you? A lark or an owl? Do you do your best work early in the morning and then sneak off to bed before the watershed? Or do you stumble out of bed, bleary-eyed after you have been burning the midnight oil?

Me? I started work on this article at 6 am: that might give you a clue…

Much of the evidence so far for disruption of our body clocks has been anecdotal. I still remember flying back from America for the first time. I was only 26 – young and fit. But for about four days I simply couldn’t function: I would wander around my flat wide awake at 3 am. Then I would fall asleep and wake up at two in the afternoon. It was the first time I had experienced jet-lag and for four or five days I was still on California time (it was February in the UK: sadly I was not still on California weather…)

Now three American scientists – Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbach and Michael W Young – have  won the Nobel Prize for work on our ‘body clocks’ – more correctly our body’s circadian rhythm – with work which, according to the Nobel prize committee, has “vast implications for health and wellbeing.”

What is our body clock?

Astonishingly for something that affects all of us at some point in our lives and clearly has major public health implications, there appears to have been little previous work done on body clocks. Dr Michael Hastings of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology described body clocks as “a black box: on a par with astrology.”

But we now know that a clock ticks in every cell in the human body – as well as in plants, animals and even fungi. (If you take nothing else from this article you know that mushrooms have body clocks…)

The clock controls our mood, our hormone levels, body temperature and metabolism. Even the risk of heart attack is increased in the morning as the body ‘gets the engine running’ to start the new day. It is not just your car that needs warming up in the morning…

Why is our body clock important?

In the short term body clock, disruption affects your ability to function. So for those four of five days when I came back from the USA I simply could not function properly and – according to the new research – my memory formation was also affected.

But if you are subjected to long-term disruption of your body clock, as can happen with shift workers, then the effects can be much more serious. Long-term disruption of your body clock increases the risk of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Other systems like hunger, mental alertness, mood, stress, and immunity also operate on a daily rhythm – and it is not just ‘major’ shifts like jet lag which can affect your body clock. Even moving the clocks forwards or backwards in the spring or autumn can do it: studies have shown that patients with heart disease are at greater risk at these particular times. Traffic accidents and workplace injuries also increase in these weeks.

It may sometimes be hard to tell whether a disrupted body clock leads to health problems, or whether it is the other way round. What appears to be undeniable is that people who have major disruptions to their body clocks are at much greater risk of illness.

Body clock

What did the new research discover?

According to Professor Russell Foster of Oxford University, the American research (which was actually carried out on fruit flies) “has shown us how molecular clocks are built across the whole animal kingdom.”

As you would expect from work which has won the Nobel Prize, it is complicated: essentially the scientists have found a section of DNA which appears to govern the production of a protein which governs how we act and react – and which controls whether we are morning larks or night owls.

The simplest analogy is – apparently – the workings of the gears and springs in an old-fashioned clock. “With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the different phases of the day,” said the Nobel Prize committee, before adding the rather un-scientific, “While we don’t know what it is for, we do know it is important.”

So what are the possible implications of these latest discoveries?

First and foremost there are ‘personal’ ones: we need to be aware of how much even small changes – such as turning the clocks back – can affect us, and we need to make allowances.

The same common sense will hopefully apply to employers: given these findings, sensible employers will recognise that traditional 9 to 5 working patterns are not the way to get the best results from their team. Forward-thinking companies will embrace flexible working ever more readily.

There are also implications for education – could schools start the day later, especially secondary schools? The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recently argued that teenagers should not start school before 8:30 because tiredness is linked to car crashes, suicide, depression and poor exam results. This latest research – not that you would think teenagers and fruit flies have a lot in common – would seem to confirm that.

Could we see an end to shift work? There now appears to be clear evidence that it is dangerous to long-term health: Professor Foster described regular shift work as being in “a constant state of jet-lag.” Could governments, anxious to save money on the NHS, legislate against disruptive patterns of shift work? And sadly, could solicitors jump on the bandwagon? ‘You’ve never had PPI? Never mind, have you ever done any shift-work?’

I can still hear my dad chanting “early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” As I was a teenager at the time I muttered something unpleasant and pulled the covers back over my head. But it looks like we were both right: as a teenager, my body clock did demand extra sleep. As an adult – as my children will confirm – I have turned into my dad…