Just like a home is never complete without a clock, your intelligent body also houses an inbuilt clock. Your body’s clock guides the various functions to follow a rhythm, known as the circadian rhythm, which governs your timing of going to bed, waking up and also the secretion of various hormones in your body.
The hormone that controls the clock-work of the body is called Melatonin and it is produced while you are asleep. It comes from the tiny pineal gland, located in the centre of the brain, also famous as Shiva’s third eye. Melatonin shot to fame with the best selling book The Melatonin Miracle , that gave it the title of nature’s age-reversing, disease-fighting, sex-enhancing hormone. It has since ruled the fancy of the health conscious world as it controls the clock-work of hormones in the body. But it can do this only if you create the right ambience for your body to secrete enough of this hormone.
Sunlight—the giver of vitality
Of interest here is that it’s important to get enough exposure to sunlight during the early hours of the day to ensure that melatonin is adequately produced at night. As such, melatonin only begins to build up with the weakening of sunlight after 2pm and in fact, it is important to sleep in a pitch dark room at night so that this hormone is produced in good amounts.
Incidentally, cortisol—the stress hormone, also obeys the circadian rhythm. But contrary to melatonin, cortisol reduces as we approach dusk. So it is high in the morning hours and then begins to decrease as the sun sets.
The more we expose ourselves to light in the day, the more melatonin we release in the night. On cloudy days, we can beneficially ‘cheat’ our pineal gland by using a lamp with a 200Watt bulb placed at three feet distance for about 30 minutes, but take care to avoid skin burn.
Generally, we focus upon night time and the sleep phase of our circadian rhythm to fix our sleep problems. Surprise, surprise! Focus instead on the daylight and the waking state. Not just the sleep issues, even some types of mood disorder, such as the ‘seasonal affective disorder’ [SAD] can be helped with sunlight exposure or the 200 Watt bulb.
This means that sunlight is more than just a source of the ‘sunshine vitamin D’, it also helps reset our biological clock. Even the pattern of reversed sleep [common among student ‘night owls’] can be helped by sun-therapy. Here I recall a psychiatrist who came to me for his ‘dysthymic mood disorder’ —chronically sad mood—who shared with me the history of his younger days when he burnt the midnight oil preparing for his medical entrance exams. He recalled ‘that is how and when it all started’ and his faulty pattern of sleep had continued even to his adult life.
So the lesson here is that during the day, expose yourself to sunlight but start to reduce your exposure to light, after 2pm. Finally by 10 or 11pm cut off exposure to all light, including TV, computer, the bedside light, light from your digital clocks or mobile phone being charged. Try this for a month and see the results for yourself.
The connection between vitamin B12 and your body clock
One exciting fact about the circadian rhythm is that we can tinker with it with the use of vitamin B12. This vitamin can help our body release melatonin earlier in the day. Japanese researchers have found that adolescents who slept at 2am and were unable to attend their morning classes, after just three days intake of 3000mcg of vitamin B12, started to sleep by 11pm and wake in time for their morning classes. These adolescents had no signs of B12 deficiency and their B12 levels were in the normal range, yet their sleep pattern improved with the extra dose of the vitamin.
The fascinating theta waves
Our brain continuously generates electric activity. This activity can be picked up by electrodes on the scalp and recorded on a moving paper by an electro-encephalograph [EEG]. Many patterns of electric activity have been discovered in an EEG that correspond to different types of psychological states of mind. Theta type of brain waves in the range of 4 – 7 cycles per second correspond to creativity and imagery and our right hemisphere dominates relatively over our left hemisphere in such moments. Theta is a feature of stage-1 sleep or light sleep. Theta also occurs in REM or dream sleep but in this case it’s mixed with other kinds of brain waves.
Can we train the brain to produce theta waves?
The answer is yes and no. It depends upon the method used. In the early 70s in the US, when the hippie movement was in full swing, there were the ‘alpha clubs’ in which one could take a trip into what they called ‘higher levels of consciousness’ with the aid of drugs such as marijuana.
But that’s about alpha waves. The brain can’t be conditioned by electronic gadgets to have a theta state. We can however learn to relax and meditate and at some point in time, with sustained practice of relaxation-meditation, specifically of the Zazen type [Soto school] we can rewire our brain to easily go into theta state.
In any case, allow yourself two or three 20-minute stretches of ‘just doing nothing’ during daytime working hours. These may even be in the form of cat naps.
Bet you didn’t know this
Mind is said to be the function of the brain. At least one such function is now known to be cyclical. This function is fantasy, reverie, or free floating imagination.
The rapid eye movement [REM] sleep, indicative of dreaming, repeats in cycles of 90 – 120 minutes during sleep. But what is now known is that this cycle is not restricted to only sleep but also goes on through the day, in a milder form. During our working hours there are moments when we feel tired and, even if we don’t find time to rest, we yawn, stare into vacuum, look lost and spacey, absorbed in reverie, oblivious to the surroundings. This state may last for 20 minutes or less and it repeats every 90 – 120 minutes—much like the REM sleep in night. This daytime mind clock is called the ultradian clock.
Researchers are exploring if this 20-minute trough of the ultradian daytime cycles is a theta brain wave state of creativity in which great discoveries are done and great works of art are produced. There are indications, that the 20-minute trough between two ultradian cycles is a healing time for our mind. If we ignore it, crush it with stimulants such as coffee and sugar, accidents can occur. Typically, these happen at the workplace. And, if we habitually suppress these states, it leads to chronic illness. The top brain in theoretical physics, Stephen Hawking, takes a 20-minute rest after each 90 – 120 minute work time. You’d say that he can afford the rest; he is after all the Stephen Hawking. Nevertheless, we, especially the workaholics among us, should take at least two or three periods of a 20-minute rest through the day. Just lie down [or sit] with your eyes closed.
This was first published in the May 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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