Rhythms Of Your Brain

Our mind, spirit, and body perform an intricate, intensely interactive dance of life. When our body's health is compromised, as when we have a cold, our cognitive functions and emotional well-being suffer. When we suffer an emotional upset, our judgments are not as clear as we would like, and sometimes our body rebels under the stress with gastrointestinal flareups or other aches and pains. In addition, when our cognitive functioning is not up to par, we cannot control or respond correctly to the physical and emotional demands in our environment.

One of the central controlling mechanisms in this dance of life is the natural rhythm of our bodies. It causes us to wake at approximately the same hour each morning, coordinates blood pressure and temperature cycles, and controls hundreds of activities within our bodies. These rhythms can be a tremendous influence on our emotional well-being, physical functioning, and cognitive abilities. How effective we are at improving our bodies and minds while fighting off diseases and age-related changes depends to various degrees on our health, age, genetics, gender, attitude, and natural rhythms. The body's natural rhythms are classified as

• Ultradian, which are shorter than 24-hour cycles, such as the rhythm of your heartbeat

• Circadian, which are approximately 24-hour cycles, such as your sleep/wake pattern

• Infradian, which are longer than circadian, as in a woman's hormonal cycle

• Seasonal, which cycle throughout the year, as in a man's testosterone cycle

The emphasis in this book is on circadian rhythms unless otherwise noted. These rhythms are of a good length, so we can easily see the effects of interventions. In addition, many of these rhythms directly and indirectly affect our mental capability.

Circadian Rhythm Revisited

Circadian is from the Latin word circa, meaning about, and dies, meaning day. The structure in our bodies that serves as our biological clock is called the supra chiasmatic nucleus (SCN). See Figure 6-1.

Our biological clock is the supra chiasmatic nucleus (SCN).

Located in the hypothalamus, a quarter-sized structure in the brain, the SCN is vital for the formation of long-term

memories. Light reaches the retina of the eye, travels via the optic nerve to the brain, and resets the SCN.

The resulting change in the SCN produces cycles, affects the nervous system, and sends signals to the pineal gland, which in turn affects hormonal levels. Recent studies indicate that the SCN can be reset using exposure to light on other areas of the body, such as the back of the knees, where blood vessels are close to the surface of the skin.

Your body temperature, blood pressure, hormonal levels, sleep/wake cycle, and many other functions are controlled by your particular circadian rhythm. Although your rhythms may be similar to someone else's in many respects, they will not be an exact match. Scientists have performed experiments that demonstrate how much control the SCN has over a body. In animals, if the SCN of one animal is replaced with the SCN from a second animal, the first animal will take on the biological rhythms of the second animal.

We intentionally or unintentionally interfere with the functioning of our internal clocks in many ways. When Daylight Savings Time (DST) goes into effect in the spring, the clocks in your house may be easily reset, but the clocks in your body are a little more difficult to reset. For several days, you may have difficulty going to sleep and getting up at the proper time, because it is one full hour earlier than it had been. You may find yourself more irritable in the mornings. In fact, traffic accidents increase by 8 percent during the week following DST implementation.1

Because exposure to sunlight is a mechanism you can use to reset your circadian rhythm, you might go outside each morning to help reset your internal clock. Nevertheless, until your body adjusts, be careful and don't schedule any important activities that require your peak mental concentration early in the morning.

Traveling across multiple time zones (especially moving toward the east) also disrupts our internal clocks. It can result in irritability, gastrointestinal upset, drowsiness during the day, and restlessness at night. These symptoms of a disharmonious biological rhythm often are referred to as jet lag. Some hotels now offer special rooms with full-spectrum lights that you can use to reset your internal clock.

Full-spectrum lighting— Standard incandescent bulbs do not produce the blue end of the color spectrum, and florescent bulbs often miss out on the red end. Full-spectrum light bulbs produce all the colors of the rainbow and generate light similar to natural sunlight.

Glenn Austin uses a mental trick to minimize jet lag. Whenever he flies into another time zone, as soon as he gets on the plane, he adjusts his watch to the destination time. If he falls asleep on the plane, all the better—he wakes up in the new time.

Rotating shift work also results in the same jet-lag type of symptoms as our bodies try to adjust to continually changing systems of work and rest. Your body has numerous internal rhythms synchronized within a daily pattern. Jet lag and rotating shift work can desynchronize your internal clocks. Sleep, blood pressure, body temperature, and other cyclic functions can become out of phase with each other. It takes several days for the body to readjust and reestablish your nat ural rhythms. Moreover, remember from Chapter 2 that we need proper sleep patterns to assist us with our memory formations and cognitive functions (more on that in just a bit).

Your emotions can affect your body's cycles. Blood pressure has its own circadian rhythm, decreasing while you sleep and rising when you awaken. Those people with higher levels of anger and hostility lose this natural lowering of blood pressure during the night hours. This elevated blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack, organ damage, and stroke. Don't go to bed upset. You can do a nice little exercise whenever you have difficulty sleeping because you are stressed or otherwise upset:

1. Lie calmly on the bed.

2. Begin at the top of your head. Concentrate to see whether you can contract your scalp. Tighten, hold for a second or two, and then release.

3. Move to the back of your head. Tighten, hold, and then release your scalp.

4. Move to your forehead. Tighten the skin, hold, and then release.

5. Move to your eyebrows. Tighten the brows, hold, and then release.

6. Move to your nose. Tighten the nose, hold, and then release.

7. Move to your ears. Tighten the ears, hold, and then release.

8. Move to your lips. Tighten the lips, hold, and then release.

9. Continue the process down to your toes, taking small steps along the way. Include each finger as a step, each muscle in your arms, one arm at a time, one muscle at a time.

(Author's note: I have never been able to do this with my toes. I have always fallen asleep before then. It's a very relaxing exercise my father taught me!)

It is common knowledge that the risk of heart attack is highest in the morning when you wake up. But this is the time when the level of many medicines taken to reduce the risk of heart attack is at its lowest. Other diseases, such as arthritis and even the common cold, have general times of the day when sufferers expect symptoms to be at their maximum levels. Medicines to counteract these diseases should be matched to biological rhythms. Proper timing of medications increases effectiveness, decreases side effects, allows you to manage your condition better, and may allow you to take smaller doses. Later, we have a section devoted to your medications and the effects they can have on your cognitive abilities. Perhaps if you can reduce the dosage using more efficient administration techniques, you can minimize the effects on your mental processes. Do not attempt to reduce the dosage of prescription medicines, however, without consulting with your physician first.

As an example, compare the general pain cycles of osteo-arthritis, the most common form of arthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Those suffering from osteoarthritis and those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis often take the same non-steroidal anti-inflammatory remedy, such as Ibuprofen, to alleviate their pain. Those with osteoarthritis tend to have more pain in the evening than in the morning and should take the pain reliever around noon or midafternoon. Those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, in which pain is higher in the morning, should take the pain reliever in the evening. Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions. If your doctor has told you to take the pain reliever at your convenience, then you might want to consider altering the time of day when you take it. However, if your doctor has told you a specific time to take your medicine, you must ask your doctor before you change your schedule.

Researchers already are investigating this concept of matching the timing of medication administration to the symptom cycle and call it chronotherapy. They predict that pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and patients will soon become familiar with this term. Medicines will need to be redesigned and prescribed differently. The body does not need a constant level of medicine in the blood throughout the day. It needs larger doses at specific times to support the body's fight against symptom changes during the day. Already, many cancer centers are timing treatments to match the circadian rhythm of the patient with excellent success rates.

Although not every researcher agrees, some research results indicate that surgeries also can be more successful if scheduled according to a person's biological rhythms. Death after surgery is three times as likely at midnight as at noon. A 20-year study of 1,200 premenopausal women found that 76 percent of those women who had surgery for breast cancer in the week after ovulation, and only 63 percent of those

"OK, Claire. If you were saving your brain for something big, this is it."

women who had the surgery earlier in the menstrual cycle, were cancer free after five years.2

Just to reemphasize, be sure to ask your doctor about the best times to take your medication. Do not attempt to change the timing or dose of your medicines without the prior approval of your physician. In addition, when a doctor asks you whether your condition is worse in the morning, the doctor is probably asking you about when you wake up. If you are doing shift work and waking up in the evening, alert the doctor to this situation before answering that question. And for all you people out there who have experienced major difficulties with medical insurance claims, think of it as an excellent learning experience exercising those interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, mathematical, and logical intelligences.

This information about your body's natural rhythms is important to both your physical and mental abilities. You need to be aware of the effects of your natural rhythms on your body in order to minimize stress, perhaps decrease the amount of medicine you take, increase your resistance to disease, and help regulate your sleep. All these factors are discussed in greater detail throughout the rest of this chapter.

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