A disrupted circadian rhythm may contribute to cancer and stroke

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Many of the body’s biological functions are controlled by an internal biological clock, known as the circadian rhythm. The intricate system depends largely on exposure to light for its regulatory effect on hormones. A great amount of research has gone into distinguishing the ill effects of circadian rhythm disruptions on the body, with evidence suggesting that a shift of just one hour may suffice to throw the body into chaos. 

Of the two clock changes that take place each year, it’s when clocks move forward that the greatest disruptions occur, mainly because this results in a lack of sleep. 

An hour change may not seem like much, but it can wreak havoc on people’s mental health and well-being in the short term, cautions Harvard Health.

That’s because less morning light means decreased levels of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin, which the body relies on heavily.

When humans are exposed to light later in the evening, it also delays the production of melatonin which further disrupts normal sleep patterns.

According to doctor Eva Winnebeck, lecturer in Chronobiology at the University of Surrey, researchers have tried to glean the effects of clock changes on well-being from time zone studies.

“Regions in the West of a time zone, where people have to rise earlier in relation to the sun, tend to show less sleep, lower incomes, lower health, higher cancer rates and more fatal traffic accidents,” explained the researcher.

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Some evidence indicates that disruptions to the circadian rhythm may contribute to an elevated risk of cancer, which is in line with studies showing that shift work contributes to tumorigenesis (the development of cancer). 

In fact, in 2019 the journal Cancer Research reported that circadian disruptions are considered an independent risk factor for cancer and classified as a carcinogen.

Epidemiological studies have shown that circadian disruptions are associated with a higher risk of cancers of the prostate, colon, liver, ovary, lung and pancreas.

Though the increase in risk may only be small, it goes to show just how much influence natural light holds over our well-being.

Likewise, research suggests the cardiovascular system may suffer from clock changes. 

James Roy, from Brainworks Neuropathy, says losing an hour of sleep is particularly bad for the brain.

“The week following the time change delivers a 24 percent rise in heart attacks, an eight percent rise in strokes and a six percent rise in fatal car accidents,” he explained.

Establishing a consistent sleep routine with undoubtedly the best way to prevent disruptions to the body’s circadian rhythm.

Doctor Harriet Leyland, Clinical Advisor at my myGP, suggests altering your bedtime schedule two or three days before the clocks change to minimalise disruption. 

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