How drugs that hijack our circadian clocks could one day improve our health
Given all of this, it’s no surprise that the search for tools to realign our circadian rhythms is on. Some people swear by melatonin or light therapy, and you can influence your own rhythms by altering the timing of your meals and sleep. But scientists are looking for drugs that can directly target our molecular clocks.
Take KL001, for example. This compound affects a protein called CRY. Clock genes can trigger the production of CRY, and high protein levels can in turn turn off clock genes.
KL001 acts to keep CRY protein levels high, which may affect the length of the circadian period. This may have a ripple effect on genes in the liver which also operate on a circadian rhythm. It can even control how liver cells make glucose, according to research on cells in a dish. In theory, a drug like this could help limit the effects of shift work on metabolic health and potentially reduce the risk of diabetes.
Unfortunately, we are probably far from being able to do this in people. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a tantalizing idea worth investigating. In the meantime, we may be able to tailor existing treatments to people based on their individual circadian rhythms.
Although we all pretty much follow a 24-hour diurnal cycle, there are variations. It is believed that people tend to fall into “chronotypes”, which roughly determine when they wake up, feel alert and sleep. Basically, you are a morning person or an evening person. If we can find ways to more accurately determine a person’s cycle over the course of a day at the molecular level, we might be able to figure out the best time to administer drugs or perform surgery, some researchers say.
Considering how long some of these ideas have been around, it’s a little disappointing that we haven’t made more progress. But it is an essential area of research. We’ve probably all felt the effects of a misaligned circadian rhythm. Jet lag can be brutal. Working late can make you restless and groggy the next day. We know staring at screens at night is bad for us, but how many of us can honestly say we don’t check our phones last at night or first thing in the morning?
We already know that we should turn off our phones as bedtime approaches and avoid artificial light at night. Getting to bed at a regular time and getting enough sleep is another fairly obvious way to maintain good circadian health. At least it’s the best time of year to make resolutions…
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