‘Circadian Rhythm’ Nobel Prize Spotlights Sleep Health

circadian rhythm

Nobel Prize winners Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young. (AFP photo/Chinese University of Hong Kong CUHK)

To many, circadian rhythm has become a concept synonymous with sleep patterns or sleep deprivation. Yet, prior to the 1980s and 1990s, few understood the body’s sleep and awake cycles, regulated by what we now know as a type of internal clock.

This week, the three American researchers who pinpointed how our bodies’ productivity fluctuates with the Earth’s rotation were recognized with the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash, of Brandeis University in Boston, and Michael Young at the Rockefeller University in New York, were honored for their work identifying the genes that regulate our cells’ activity, depending on daily fluctuations between day and night.

“These researchers gave us insight into how our bodies are programmed to function differently during daytime hours versus nocturnal hours,” said neurologist and sleep specialist David Seiden, M.D., medical director of the Baptist Sleep Center at Pembroke Pines.

The three researchers conducted a series of experiments in the 1980s and 1990s that significantly changed our understanding of how the circadian rhythm impacts our health and well-being. Using fruit flies, they isolated a gene that controls a protein that accumulates in cells during the night and dissipates during the day. They also identified additional protein components that control the clockwork of cells.

Their work established the field of study that is, today, known as circadian biology. We now recognize that this daily fluctuation of proteins in our cells regulate our sleep patterns and affect other functions of our bodies.

“From their work, the field of chronobiology has advanced and has led to important discoveries about sleep’s relationship to overall good health,” Dr. Seiden said. “When our circadian rhythm is out of sync, our health is compromised.”

A well-documented example of the impact of disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm is jet lag, experienced when changing time zones. The body must adjust its internal clock in response to sunlight and nighttime. That process can take a few days, resulting in tiredness during the day and wakefulness at night.

Recent research has indicated that disruption of the circadian rhythm can have a profound effect on our health. Studies on shift workers indicate higher instances of peptic ulcer disease, coronary heart disease and compromised pregnancy outcomes, according to a 2003 study published by the journal Occupational Medicine.

Research published in the journal Immunology also shows that the immune systems of those with circadian rhythm disorders are also significantly compromised, which has been shown to increase susceptibility to infection but to also impact inflammatory and metabolic responses in the body. These responses have been studied for their relationship to diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and obesity.

Dr. Seiden’s work has benefited from the decades-old findings of the three Nobel laureates being honored. He also applauds their recognition for again raising awareness about the importance of chronobiology and the important relationship between sleep and good health.

“Their findings have helped establish the field of chronobiology and will have major implications for health research in the future,” he said.

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