Insomnia. Our body clock has a powerful effect on our sleep quality

The idea of a body clock was sneered at by scientists for a long time. But those of us who have worked nights know that we never really get used to it, that we feel tired all the time and miserable or irritable too.

Recently there was a  Life Scientific programme  Radio 4, where they get a working scientist to talk about what he or she does. One that interested me was Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxofrd University. He had to fight hard to get his ideas accepted as the concept of body clock challenged scientific orthodoxy.

One of the things about night work he says, is that offices, hospitals and factories have relatively low lighting levels. When we go home after work, we hit the daylight. And our bodies respond immediately and powerfully. We are wired to be awake in the day and asleep at night, and our bodies never get used to shift work, even after 20 years he says. We have been adapting for millions of years. 20 years on nights is not enough to change that! Our body clocks always force our daily rhythms to responod to the level of light. This scientist discovered that blind animals, with no light sensing cells in their eyes at all, could still detect levels of light so that they went to sleep when it was dark and woke when it was light. Even though they could not see! Amazing.

Shiftworkers are at a higher risk of obesity, cardiovascular problems, depression gastrointestinal problems and chronic sleep debt. This is in part explained by disruption of the body clock, according to Lowden and colleagues. Professor Foster is concerned that shiftworkers are getting a rough deal which is affecting their health. Proper food is not available at night in hospitals for example, with only  vending machines selling sweet or fatty snacks available. I see a lot of shiftworking nurses who are worried about their weight, and it is clear that this lack of good food at night in a key problem. And the risk of falling asleep at the wheel on the way home for nightworkers is an area of current research. Shiftworking impacts of the overall quality of sleep due to the body clock disruption.

This is the man who suggested that teenagers need more sleep than adults and that school should start at 10am not 9am. This is quite controversial! But academic research has shown that if we can match teenagers' biological preferences for a late bedtiime with their need for 9 hours sleep then we would start school later. Later school starts for teenagers has been shown to reduce depression and self harm and increase grades! Despite this evidence, we start school at 9am. You can see that it would be politically a bit tricky to let those layabout teenagers just slob about in bed a bit more! But the evidence says it is a biological fact that teenagers need more sleep than adults.

All of us can look at how we can improve the quality of our sleep. There are some general tips. Stop using the smartphone and tablet about an hour before bed, dim the lights. Give yourself an hour or more after vigorous exercise too. Late night coffee or energy drinks can keep you awake. Try not to use them after late afternoon. Piles of work that needs doing? Hide it away! Keep your bedroom a haven of peace and comfort, so change that lumpy pillow for something soft and soothing! If you are not asleep within 20 minutes, get up. Try to get out of bed at the same time every day. Trying to catch up on lost sleep is a fruitless exercise. Aim to get into a pattern of bed time and waking time, so that your body clock can settle down.

Keeping our body clock in good order helps maintain physical and mental health.

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