In early October 2017, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work exploring circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms align the biological behaviours of living organisms to the Earth’s rotation. In humans, it is why we feel tired as it gets dark and awake during daylight. Though for many of us our lifestyles push against our natural body-clock by staying up late with artificial light, or when we travel across time zones. It’s this upset to our normal circadian rhythm that causes us to feel uneasy or unwell very late at night or when we have to get up especially early.
The Nobel Prize winners’ work identified the internal machinery in the body that underlies these responses. This discovery is enabling scientists to better understand how organisms anticipate and react to day/night cycles to regulate sleep patterns, feeding behaviour, hormone release and the body’s temperature, along with numerous other physiological processes.
Whilst the premise that we should sleep when it’s dark and work when it’s light has been in place for millennia it is only very recently that science has been able to unpick why this is the case. Going forward expect to see advances in medicine that counter our circadian rhythm to offset lifestyle induced symptoms such as jet-lag.
Caution is advised though as so little about the importance of sleep. Society’s desire to work increasingly longer hours might, in fact, shorten our lives if we don’t succumb to our bodies natural prompts to sleep.