Skip to Content

The Tick Tock of Your Master Clock - The Brain and Sleep


I recently read an NPR blog article that discussed the burgeoning scientific evidence that sleep (or lack thereof) has a direct influence on weight loss or gain. The theory behind this concept is that each of the organs in our bodies has its own “clock” by which it conducts its duties. Override these clocks, and risk throwing off the balance of what’s supposed to be happening within that organ. In a nutshell, your brain is the master clock. When it tells your organs what to do and when to do it, then you give it another message by doing something at the wrong time – internal chaos eventually ensues. But perhaps the most important effect of this imbalance is the very likely possibility that certain chronic diseases and conditions are made worse by it. And it all starts with the brain. So how can you keep your Master Clock in “tick-tock” shape? Read on.

Your Brain on Sleep

Your brain needs sleep. It’s that simple. Nearly every study done on sleep and its effects on the brain has concluded that sleep deprivation is dangerous and can severely damage both the nervous and immune system functions of the body. People who are sleep-deprived are at a higher risk of accidents, mental disorders and disease. While the amount of sleep you need over your lifetime can depend greatly on your unique characteristics and age, the quality of that sleep is non-negotiable. Some ways to get that high-quality sleep you need include: going to bed at the same time each night, maintaining a comfortable room temperature during sleep, not falling asleep with the television on and avoiding caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime.

Exposure to Early Morning Light

Studies have now shown that one of the best ways to keep your master clock working well is to allow your body to awaken with early morning, natural light. Not with an alarm clock or other external “trigger,” but with the sun. The reason? Your body’s Circadian Rhythms were designed to work this way. Circadian Rhythms are the consistent changes in your mental and physical characteristics that occur over the course of a day. These rhythms are controlled by structures that are located inside the hypothalamus gland of your brain. More specifically, these structures reside in an area that is sensitive to light. When light hits them it triggers a number of processes in the body – some to shut down, others to ramp up. This is why consistent exposure to light and darkness at the RIGHT times of day are important for your body’s biological processes to function at optimal levels. In fact, the disruption of this natural process is actually what is responsible for ‘jet lag,’ that feeling of being tired after you’ve crossed time zones and awaken at the “current time.” You may be technically waking at 7 a.m. for example, but the Circadian Rhythms in your body are still behaving like it’s 4 a.m. It can take some people several days to adjust to the change.

Sunlight exposure isn’t the same as exposure to any other type of unnatural lighting. And some people never really do “adjust” to trying to unnaturally alter those circadian rhythms. Take night shift workers for example. Did you know that several scientific studies have shown that people who work the night shift are at a markedly increased risk of workplace injuries than those who work a daytime job? Much of the reason behind this phenomenon centers on the brain’s cues being artificially overridden. We may be able to shock our bodies to stay awake with unnatural means, but that doesn’t discount that somewhere in the brain, it BELIEVES it is supposed to be asleep at 2 a.m., and disaster can ensue.

Whenever possible, allow the sunlight to awaken you in the morning. Even better, try spending one hour outdoors in the early morning sun. No sunglasses. And not in a car or sunny indoor room where windows are likely to have been treated to filter the light in certain ways. In fact, try it for a week and see how you feel. Were you better rested? Did you have more energy? Did any of the chronic conditions you suffer from seem to be at least a bit alleviated by the effort? Our bodies were intricately designed to behave a specific way. Sure, we can “trick” them into doing what we want for a while. But eventually, we’ll pay the price with our health – both mentally and physically. That price is way too high.