How drugs that hack our circadian clocks might one day improve our health

Given all this, it’s no surprise that the hunt is on for tools to realign our circadian rhythms. Some people swear by melatonin or light therapy, and you can influence your own rhythms by changing the timing of your meals and sleep. But scientists are after drugs that can target our molecular clocks directly.

Take KL001, for example. This compound affects a protein called CRY. Clock genes can switch on the production of CRY, and high levels of the protein can in turn switch off the clock genes.

KL001 works to keep levels of CRY protein high, which can affect the length of the circadian period. This can have a knock-on effect on genes in the liver that also run to 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 lower the risk of diabetes.  

Unfortunately, we are likely some way off from being able to do this in people. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a tantalizing idea worth investigating. In the meantime, we might be able to tailor existing treatments to people on the basis of their individual circadian rhythms.

While we all roughly follow a diurnal 24-hour cycle, there are variations. It is thought that people tend to fall into “chronotypes,” which roughly determine when they wake up, feel alert, and sleep. Basically, you’re a morning person or an evening person. If we can find ways to more accurately determine how a person cycles through a day at the molecular level, we might be able to work out the best time to deliver medicines or perform surgery, say some researchers.

Considering how long some of these ideas have been around, it’s a little disappointing that we haven’t made more progress. But it’s a vital area of research. We’ve probably all experienced the effects of a misaligned circadian rhythm. Jet lag can be brutal. Working late can leave you feeling rough and groggy the next day. We know that staring at screens at night is bad for us, but how many of us can honestly say we don’t check our phones last thing at night or first thing in the morning?  

We already know we should be switching off our phones as bedtime approaches, and avoiding artificial light overnight. Going to bed at a regular time and getting enough sleep is another pretty obvious way to maintain good circadian health. At least it happens to be the best time of year for making resolutions …

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Light pollution affects the health of plenty of living creatures, not just humans. And energy-efficient LED lights are making it worse, as Shel Evergreen found. 

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