For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck what is planted. God has made everything beautiful in its time.
For thousands of years, we have honored nature’s rhythms. We planted our crops according to the seasons and the phases of the moon. We ate and slept with the rising and setting of the sun. But modern life with its conveniences has severed this connection. We now use artificial light to work late and an alarm to wake us up on schedule. Our bodies lose the natural cycles of fasting, purification, and restoration. We eat the same foods year round so we no longer know the peak season for fruits and vegetables.
Chronobiology is the study of patterns and rhythms that repeat themselves. Until recently, medicine paid very little attention to the seasonality or rhythm of disease. Timing is now becoming important in the overall maintenance of health, and especially so in the detection, treatment, and prevention of disease.
The Wall Street Journal recently featured ways in which biorhythms are being studied in the diagnosis of autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and dementia. In autistic children, researchers were able to differentiate characteristic brain wave patterns in the language centers with 90% accuracy.
The body’s physiologic rhythms work on different time scales and often interact with each other. A rhythm gone awry can indicate disease. One body rhythm out of sync can impact another, creating pervasive illness. Consider these types of rhythms:
- Cellular rhythms: Biochemical rhythms that oscillate throughout the day, prompting electrically excitable cells in neurons to activate and rest.
- Ultra-rhythms: Our cycles that repeat throughout a day, such as heartbeat, breathing, and our hormonal system. Heart attacks occur more often in the early morning when there is a peak in stress hormones. Asthma is most common at night when the stress hormone cortisol decreases.
- Circadian rhythms: Our sleeping and waking cycle. The body’s 24-hour cycle affects sleep, body weight, and fertility.
- Ciralunar cycles: Our monthly cycles. A women’s immunity is lowest during menses and highest during ovulation.
- Cirannual cycles: The seasonal influence on our human experience. Testicular cancer is more common in the winter as is breast cancer in women with low melatonin due to increased darkness.
Over a thousand biological rhythms control the human body. Each biological timer dictates a specific rhythm to a group of cells, organ, or endocrine gland. Our individual body clocks may be linked to a common master clock that is in turn controlled by the sun and movements of earth. When kept in total darkness, animals and plants are able to maintain this rhythm for a period of time but then gradually shift out of sync.
Chronotherapy considers how the body’s rhythms impact its ability to process medications. Every drug has an optimal time when it is the least toxic and most effective. According to Franz Halberg, chronobiologist, “One of the big mistakes that’s made is to believe that we can treat by clock hours. We have to treat by body times.”
For cancer treatment, these should be consideration: the drug being administered, the timing when the patient’s cancer cells divide the most (and are the most vulnerable), when the healthy cells divide the least, and the patient’s rest and activity cycles. Chemotherapy is more effective when taking all factors into consideration.
Most living creatures have adapted to the temporal order of their environment so they carry out bodily functions at the best time. Although humans also evolved with this natural music, we fool ourselves in believing we can move beyond our biology. Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine honor these transitions. In western medicine, understanding that the seasons and geography impact health help physicians tailor prevention and treatment so patients can live in sync with their biology and environment.