Circadian Disruption – What Those Late Nights are Really Doing to Your Body

What does a trans-pacific jet-set have in common with a caffeine fuelled all-nighter in the office? A lot more than you think, especially if the time-zone switching or dawn clock-off have become something more than just a special occasion. 

It’s known as circadian disruption, and if you’re a frequent flier, flight attendant or shift worker you will be well familiar with its effects already. Symptoms all too similar to that of a hangover: grogginess, nausea, difficulty concentrating and trouble re-establishing your sleeping patterns (think insomnia and/or difficulty waking up again).

This complex disruption affects your entire body and wrecks havoc across systems when things go wrong, yet is controlled mostly by one simple thing – your exposure to day and night. Simply put, we have a ‘master clock’ inside of us, and it’s still living by the sun.

As Foster and Wulff put it: “Circadian rhythms synchronize the body functions with the environment, help to optimize energy use, and, therefore promote survival’ pretty important stuff really, a deeply rooted system at the core of our survival. ”

Triggering Circadian Disruption

Shift work and jet-lag are the two major culprits for throwing your sleep/wake cycle out of whack, however, anything that causes sleep deprivation or exposes somebody to light-at-night is at risk.

Helping your body re-couperate from traveling across the globe or a one-off stint staying up for the sunrise is OK, and there are many clever tactics that will help your body adjust back into a normal sleeping pattern sooner.

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The real problem comes when you are subjecting your body to frequent and unpredictable bouts of day and night, dark and light, sleeping and waking, over and over and over again.

The (Worrying) Results

Numerous studies document the horrific results of this un-natural lifestyle, as humans shift toward a more nocturnal pattern powered by artificial lights and blue-light emitting screens.

It has been a long-known fact by scientists and doctors in the know that rapid travel across time zones (a.k.a Jetlag) can cause a number of nasty side effects, and not just the groggy haze you’ll spend the first few days at your new designation. No, the side effects of jet lag can be far more sinister: gastrointestinal problems, mental and psychological disturbances, hormone rhythm disruptions, just to name a few.

Shift work has notably similar effects on the body, more prominently in cases where the ‘shifts’ being worked are rotating or changing, without the body having a chance to adapt to the new times.

Circadian Disruption and Metabolic Disease has looked at a number of circadian disruptors, and noted something else disturbing – the relationship between sleep/wake cycles and metabolic diseases such as diabetes.

If you ask around, hunt through medical journals or even google for it, there is no shortage of information linking sleeping patterns to a host of disorders and diseases. Cancer, Obesity, Diabetes and

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A few examples of studies linking circadian disruption & various disorders: (study 1)  (study 2) (study 3)

For a comprehensive article on circadian rhythm function and the effects of circadian disruption I highly recommend reading: Disruption of circadian rhythm increases the risk of cancer, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease


Special Risks for Women

Studies (like this one) have suggested that engaging in nightshift work plays havoc with your Melatonin levels (a hormone produced in anticipation of the daily onset of darkness), which in turn, effects the natural hormonal cycles of the body. This has been shown, in some cases, to increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, as well as affecting menstrual cycles.

Managing Circadian Disruption – What Can I Do?

This all sounds like rather grim news for somebody who, for work, family or personal reasons, cannot escape the trap of jet lag and shift work. However, there are some things you can do to ensure you are looking after your body as much as possible through difficult lifestyles and sleeping patterns:


    • Make an appointment with a good nutritionalist or dietician: Yes, you heard me right. There is a huge amount of evidence to show a strong link between the sleep/wake cycle and the feeding & fasting cycle (Read this if you still aren’t sold) . Just make sure you choose someone who is knowledgable on the importance eating times & habits play in sleeping and shift work.

    • Keep a Diary: Knowing how your body responds to different situations is a key tool is conquering it, understanding that you tend to feel worse if your shift hours vary, or better if you have a light meal before sleep, can give you more tools to care for yourself. Start by writing it down – what times did you work, sleep, what did you eat, and most importantly – how did you feel? Look for patterns, and go from there.

    • Anticipating Jetlag?: There are a huge number of amazing resources out there to help you combat jet lag: green-light therapy glasses,Jet Lag Curing Lamps, Even iPhone apps. Jake has written a good post about managing jet lag & circadian rhythms at MentalPhase.
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One Last Video Before You Go:

If your interested in this topic, watch this quick Yale University talk about the relationship between circadian disruption and cancer.
For more fascinating sleep videos, check out my post 3 Essential Ted Talks that will Change the Way you Think About Sleep

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