How drugs that hack our circadian clocks might one day improve our health
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There are many biological clocks. The circadian clock, which sits in our brains, keeps our bodies in a rhythm. It is not the one that moves forwards with age. This clock controls when we sleep, eat, and wake up.
But there’s more. It also influences the finer details of how our bodies function, by influencing hundreds upon hundreds of molecular clocks in our cells and organs. There are clocks that regulate metabolism and others that control the production of proteins by genes. It’s not surprising that disturbances in our circadian rhythms, such as from jet lag or shift work can have a negative impact on our health.
Scientists are now working to find ways to adapt treatments to our circadian rhythms. The lab is currently investigating drugs that target clocks. Were we able to hack the circadian clocks in order to improve our health?
Circadian clocks don’t tick forward, but rather loop through cycles over a 24-hour period. These are basically clusters of genes or proteins that work together. For example, some genes might make proteins every day. These proteins can block genes from making new proteins overnight if they are made enough. When the levels of these proteins fall too low, the genes turn back on in the morning. The cycle continues.
These cycles are controlled by an internal clock, known as the hypothalamus’ master clock. This clock is believed to synchronize all of them. It is thought to set its own rhythm but it is also affected by the amount of light entering our eyes, how we eat and sleep, as well as other aspects of our behavior.
Many biological functions can be affected by molecule clocks. One study on mice showed that 43% of the animals’ genes are regulated by a circadian rhythm. Most genes make more proteins in “rush hours”, just before dawn and after dusk.
Although it is difficult to replicate the same research on people, we know that many human genes function in a similar manner. Our hormones, and immune cells, seem to have circadian patterns that fluctuate throughout the day.
Even microbiomes seem like they cycle over the course a day. Scientists analyzed stool samples taken from volunteers and found that certain types of gut bacteria are more prevalent during the day than others at night. The relative abundance of Bacteroidetes bacteria can be used to break down starches or fibers in the stomach.Nighttime was 6% higherFor example, Although it’s not clear what this means for our health at the moment, it is interesting to note that these patterns are disrupted in people with type 2 diabetes and obesity.
These conditions are more common among night-shift workers, who also have a higher risk of developing cancer and cardiovascular disease. It’s hard to determine exactly how much of this risk can attributed to a disrupted circadian rhythm. However, research suggests that it may be a significant part. Working overnight can change the timing of when certain genes make proteins. These proteins are essential for the immune system, especially those that kill cancer cells.
It’s not surprising that tools are sought to rebalance our circadian rhythms. Some people swear by light therapy or melatonin. You can also alter your rhythms by changing your sleep and meals. Scientists are looking for drugs that directly target our molecular clocks.
KL001 is an example. This compound can affect a protein called CRY. Clock genes can turn on the production and release of CRY. High levels of the protein can also cause the clock genes to stop working.
KL001 works by keeping levels of CRY protein high. This can have an impact on the length of the circadian cycle. This can have a knock-on impact on genes in the liver that follow a circadian rhythm. It can even regulate how liver cells make glucose. According to research on cells in a dish. The drug could be used to reduce the impact of shift work on metabolic health and possibly lower the risk of developing diabetes.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to do this in humans. It’s still worth exploring. We might be able, in the meantime to adapt existing treatments to individuals based on their circadian rhythms.
Although we all follow a 24-hour diurnal cycle, there are variations. People are thought to be influenced by their “chronotypes,” which determine when they feel awake, alert, and sleep. You can be either a morning or evening person. We might be able, if we can determine how a person cycles through the day at the molecular level more accurately, to help us decide the best time to perform surgery or deliver medicine. Some researchers agree..
It’s surprising that we haven’t made more progress considering how long these ideas have been around. It’s an important area of research. You’ve probably all experienced the effects on your circadian rhythm. Jet lag can be very severe. You may feel tired and groggy the day after working late. While we all know that staring at screens at nights is bad for our health, how many of us can say that we don’t check our phones at night or in the morning?
We all know that we should turn off our phones at bedtime and avoid artificial light. A regular bedtime and adequate sleep are two of the best ways to maintain good circadian health. It’s also the best time of the year to make resolutions.
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I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.