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One World 24/7

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia () - March 12, 2009 - 12:00am

“One World” sounds so romantic but I do not think romance was what financiers and bankers had in mind when they lost people’s money having treated it as currency that could sail anywhere in the world and sink in the world’s riskiest zones. One World brings us constantly online with the world popping up in little animated boxes guided by our keystrokes. One World also means that some part of the world is always awake to service another part of it. But like all things, One World 24/7 is not free. It carries a price and scientists think that it is destroying our inner clocks.  

This finding was arrived at in a study published in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last Jan. 16 entitled “Adverse metabolic and cardiovascular consequences of circadian misalignment” by Frank A. J. L. Scheer Michael F. Hilton, Christos S. Mantzoros, and Steven A. Shea from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Boston, and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

We all carry a circadian rhythm coming from a part in our brains. Think of it as having a super clock network (or SCN which really stands for suprachiasmatic nucleus if you want to impress your friends). It is in your hypothalamus. It is more than a clock; it is your physiological schedule — like the “project management” software of your biological life. It regulates the highs and lows in our biological processes, hormonal releases that match our hours for waking/sleeping, feeding/fasting. When this inner clock is disrupted, it triggers a disruption in the other cogs and wheels of your system. Previous studies have linked the disruption of this circadian rhythm with increased risk for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Researchers have also been intrigued that shift workers exhibit symptoms akin to those of jetlag like fatigue, gastrointestinal complaints and sleepiness during “wake periods” and wakefulness during sleep periods.

It turns out that this inner clock has a pace that is its own, which we cannot force by sheer will or by the necessities of our work hours. If it gets confused, the springs of your inner clock can disrupt the timing of all other things in your body. This is because your superclock network regulates a lot of those things you see when you get a blood test: leptin, plasma glucose, glucose tolerance, corticosteroids, and cardiovascular function. It does this by sending signals to your liver, pancreas, adrenal cortex, and heart. In other words, practically everywhere. In fact, after the experiment, some of the subjects had elevated glucose levels that would qualify as pre-diabetic.

I am sure that the first people you worry about are those in call centers. Some of them now do in the mornings what used to be a day’s end or a Friday treat, drinking beer with friends. I have always had a hunch that there must be some price we pay with their health for that. Well now, we have evidence. But shift workers are not the only ones I can see having these disruptions in their inner clocks. So are teenagers who think they are wasting their lives away if they lay off the computer and get some sleep. And what about those of us who routinely keep on working on our laptops way into the hour the sun starts to peek again?

Could we really slow down how the world works now and still be part of it? Could we eventually force our biological rhythms to adjust to the time of a world constantly awake? I think some of us will be able to and some of us won’t. Maybe we will also come up with ingenious ways to fool our inner clocks. As in many things, only time will tell.

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For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com

BETH ISRAEL DEACONESS MEDICAL CENTER BOSTON HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL BRIGHAM AND WOMEN CHRISTOS S FRANK A HARVARD UNIVERSITY ONE WORLD PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES SCHEER MICHAEL F STEVEN A WORLD
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