Chapter 3. Believe in your Biological Clock and its Circadian Rhythm
When a machine in use develops a malfunction, which prevents its use or makes such use less than efficient, we stop its use and have a knowledgeable person service it. Manufacturers and suppliers of machines used by families for various domestic functions such as washing of kitchen vessels, cleaning of domestic spaces, washing of clothes, refrigeration of food, laptops, televisions etc are aware of this need. They arrange to have contracts with their customers for periodic servicing which prevents sudden breakdowns. Good householders believe in having such service contracts and keeping them alive.
They also carefully go through working manuals provided by the machine manufacturers. The manual helps them to use correct operating procedures and avoid wrong operations. Service Contracts should be designed scientifically and in customer friendly fashion. The periodicity of servicing should be good enough to guarantee continuous functioning before the equipment expires or gets outmoded. It should not be so frequent as to increase the cost to the customer unnecessarily. There should of course be scope for emergency calls for servicing. Industries who use larger or more complicated machinery, including machines manufacturing other machines, must also follow the same discipline, with greater price to pay for failure in doing so.
Through her extremely methodical evolutionary exercises spanning many, many thousands of years, Mother Nature has created a great variety of living species, which are continuing to evolve still. Except where human activity or natural disasters lead to overwhelming difficulties, almost all living species manage to keep following the working manuals built into their physical forms with loving care by Mother Nature. It often seems to me that arguably the most sophisticated and developed of them all, the human being, endowed with a large brain as well, has thrown the manual of maintenance of his body and mind out somewhere and forgotten all about it. Man must remember that like machines made by him, Nature’s products too, especially living ones, certainly need rules for maintenance. These happen to be built into the living systems which derive full benefit from them, when they deviate only very little from them, or preferably not at all.
All forms of life have lived on this planet for millions of years under conditions of natural light availability and of its withdrawal at regular periodicities and changes of weather in location also in cycles. Their bodies have therefore developed properties in their living cells which are able to trigger them for specific activities related to specific times of the day or of the year. These periodic functional molecular triggers in them are known as biological clocks. Their predictable periodicity is called, for the daily cycle, circadian rhythm (circa- meaning approximately and -dian meaning daily). Animals in the wild whose habits have thus been regulated will feel the need to go to sleep about the same time every day. They will feel hungry about the same number of times daily and at about the same times each day. The development of human civilization has made large changes in natural habitat availability for many non-human living creatures and their habits have also changed to varying slight extents in adaptation.
It is interesting to reflect that our ancients, whose idea of time seemed to have spanned the stretch between fractional micro seconds to trillions of years, used two different systems to arrive at their numerous units of time, which however coincided in their macro levels. In the microlevels, they were inspired by the mean time taken by two natural human periodicities, for breathing (prana) and for batting the eyelid (nimesha). At macro levels they were associated with the relative movements of the earth, Sun, the moon and the visible asterisms in the Milky Way. This blog gives some idea about the Sanatanic time units. https://pparihar.com/2016/02/04/vedic-time-system/. I am mentioning this primarily to draw attention to this dedicated aspect of Sanatanic thinking, the total alignment of human bio periodicities with those of the Universe, namely of Ma Prakriti. Readers will thus note, that this Chapter is in fact the development at some length of a subset of Chapter 2. Man’s biological clock is merely the micro end of her Universal clock. All of time operates in cycles inescapably. And the Circadian rhythm embraces all forms of life. Their capacity to sense natural (and in modern times, also artificial) light and its near absence, not to mention light of different frequencies (colours) and varying intensities, is of paramount importance. This capacity enabled the creation of in-built biological clocks during their evolution and helps them to use them trustingly day after day. The mean solar day on earth, consisting of 24 hours or 60 nadis, called ahoratra or day-night by our ancients, is available to humankind as well as to all other living beings. In fact, all other life depends on plant life directly or indirectly for its sustenance! Just as an aside, let me indicate a beautiful construct present in the compound word ahoratra. It contains the word hora meaning time in Sanskrit, Latin and Greek enclosed within ‘atra’, which means here in Sanskrit. This insight is not mine. It is known for some time. What a beautiful way of saying that of all cycles that Prakriti keeps in her rich storage, the ‘ahoratra’ one should be the most significant to life on earth!
Daniel Chamovitz is the author of a marvellous little book with the engaging title “What a Plant knows- a Field Guide to the Senses”, published in 2012 at New York by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He talks in the very first Chapter of the book about what the plant ‘sees’, citing research work that perhaps started, when Charles Darwin and his son carried out experiments which helped Darwin to conclude that all plants had some part which bent towards light, a property known as phototropism.
Chamovitz clarifies that plants do not see pictures as we do. But they sense light in many ways. In fact, they can ‘see’ some colours in the spectrum visible to us and even beyond it. They can recognize the ultraviolet light which can cause sunburns to pale coloured people and the infrared which can heat us up. They seem to sense whenever the approach of any object tends to block light falling on them, and thus they will bend and twist in the track of their normal growth to be able to continue to receive light daily without fail and in right amounts. This can happen whenever other plants grow near them, whenever men build structures near them or even when pots in which they grow are moved by men
Darwin was able to find out that in a young seedling, the growing top tip had the ability to receive light and to communicate the information to the other parts. As the plant grows, every main branch and all smaller branches keep receiving this information from the leaves which also do photosynthesis and from new tips which keep sprouting and will form more leaves and buds.
We need not go here into the detailed mechanism of how plants utilize the light which they so intelligently seem to go after. Most of us have some rudimentary idea and know that light is very important for them. As gardeners and farmers, we do take the precautions necessary to provide light to the vegetation that we farm. But beyond our gardens and farms as well, vegetation manages beautifully on its own. Unlike animals, plants are sessile and cannot run away from their location. However, they have the responsibility of finding sustenance not only for themselves, but to all herbivores and omnivores directly and to carnivores indirectly because herbivorous animals feeding on the plants are later eaten by the carnivores.
I referred to Chamovitz’s wonderful little book about what a plant knows, published less than six years ago, to refer to the alacrity with which growing tips of a plant or a tree, as well as grown leaves on them can communicate with the rest of the flexible portions of the tree or plant. In turn, they can orient the leaves to get exposed to light optimally. Both in this unfailing optimization and in seeking out soil minerals and water through their roots equipped with a sense of gravitational direction, the plants are totally aligned with Nature and follow her rule book. Chamovitz’s book can be read to great advantage by readers who would like to know also how plants react to the sense of touch or smell, whether the final word is in about the possibility of plants actually hearing different kinds of sounds and discriminating among them, how plants are able to know their location, and in particular, up and down directions, how plants remember and how in general they are aware of their environment. Chamovitz is with the Scientists who have decided that plants indeed cannot hear as such, while they may react to very loud sounds as they would react to touch. Others are still investigating the effects of ultrasonic and selected sonic frequencies such as the buzzing of pollinating insects and other sounds of interest to plant cycles.
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpls.2016.00222/full is the link to a very recent article, which is closer to the object of our discussion about work and rest cycles of all living things based on biological clocks or Circadian rhythms This article in Frontiers in Plant Science by Eetu Puttonen, Christian Briese, Gottfried Mandlburger, Martin Wieser, Martin Pfennigbauer, Andras Zlinszky and Norber Pfeiffer (29th February, 2016) recorded the quantification of overnight movement of Birch (Betula pendula) branches and foliage with Short Interval Terrestrial Laser Scanning, in studies conducted in the same season close to the autumnal equinox both in Finland and in Austria. A good amount of drooping of leaves and relaxing of flexible branches was noticed, the movements occurring for up to 9 to 10 hours after sunset and the complete reversing effected soon after sunrise.
Is this not very close to animal and human eyes closing for sleep in the night? The almost magical combination of osmosis and capillarity that enables a tree to keep sucking up water from the soil to great heights and the reduction of evaporation of moisture from leaves in the night would also provide reserves of moisture to the leaves to tackle the pressures of day time water loss. Photosynthesis is stopped in the absence of sunlight, and like sleeping animals not being able to eat at night, consumption of nutrient produced by photosynthesis is also reduced.
Plants in forests do not create any exception to this practice of respecting their circadian rhythm and resting the active cells in their leaves. Their fruit yields and fruit sizes can also be expected to stick to average norms, unlike products farmed by man with chemical fertilization and other devices including genetic modification.
In their paper entitled “Peroxiredoxins are conserved markers of circadian rhythms” published in Nature, 485(7399):459-64, in May 2012, the authors Edgar RS, Green EW, Zhao Y, van Ooijen G, Olmedo M, Qin X, Xu Y, Pan M, Valekinja UK, Feenay KA, Maywood ES, Hastings MH, Baliga NS, Morrow M, Millar AJ, Johnson CH, Kuriacou CP, O’Neill JS and Reddy AB report finding endogenous rhythms widely prevalent in cyanobacteria, fungi, plants and all kinds of animals. As far as animals are concerned, the rhythmicity can be observed in the sleeping and feeding patterns of the larger ones including human beings readily. There are also clear patterns of core body temperature, brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities studied by several scientists. The physiological reaction of organisms to the length of the day or night, called photoperiodism is a very vital characteristic for animals as it is for plants, though for different reasons. Their circadian clocks play their roles both in measuring and in interpreting the available length of light or darkness. The capacity of being able to predict such data during a day as well as significant weather changes over larger periods than a day both effectively and in time is crucial for the survival of many species. Changing length of the photoperiod (day length) is the most predictive environmental cue, though not the only one, for animals and birds to time their migration, hibernation and reproduction. https://web.archive.org/web/20080101142300/http:/scienceblogs.com/clock/2007/07/clock_tutorial_16_photoperiodi_1.php
Hall, Rosbash and Young received a Nobel Prize in 2017 for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm. “Using fruit flies as a model organism, they isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night and is then degraded during the day. Subsequently, they identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell. We now recognize that biological clocks function by the same principles in cells of other multicellular organisms, including humans.
With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day. The clock regulates critical functions such as behaviour, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism. Our wellbeing is affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock, for example when we travel across several time zones and experience “jet lag”. There are also indications that chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner timekeeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases”. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2017/press-release/
The work of these Scientists had been comprehensive enough to indicate a common genetic protein which is the marker for the biological clock function. It is therefore not necessary for us to go on to illustrations of various animals including mammals in this chapter as we seem to jump effortlessly from the fruit fly to human beings. Let us however look at the previous paragraph which tells us how we have failed to trust the painstakingly evolved gift of Nature to us, the biological clock.
There are several successful academicians, businessmen and bureaucrats who find it necessary to flit across the globe too frequently, merely to increase their influence and/or wealth through personal contacts rather than through communications alone. Their eating and sleeping cycles all go awry, and health suffers badly. To overcome digestive pains, they indulge in the use of pharmaceutical drugs and even alcoholic beverages beyond safe limits which damages health further while giving a false sense of temporary comfort. Several industries work three shifts to maximise production and profit and unless the staff strength is sufficiently large, it is not possible to keep the shift personnel in good health. The same logic applies also to flight crews of successful airlines. The airlines must rotate the schedules carefully to allow the staff to retain good health and therefore be more effective in their functions.
We also know that without the excuse of professional requirement, a lot of successful men and women believe in entertaining themselves outside business hours by dining and drinking till very late hours, once again insulting their biological clocks. Their professional expertise in management and leadership does not seem to confer on them simultaneously the wisdom to heed the circadian clock and eat and sleep appropriately. We readily spot a drooping plant in our balcony and move it to a brighter side. But we are not able to understand why our jet setting children seem so lost, when not busy looking at monitors for business or for pleasure.
The yamas and niyamas of a yogic way of life guarantee respect to our biological clocks. Insistence on tempering passion of every kind, limiting the number of meals, having fixed meal timings, attribution of sattvic, rajasic and tamasic qualities to consumption of specific food types, fixing times for going to sleep and waking up, inclusion of exercises for all parts of the body and of contemplative, meditative and relaxing schedules are among the most significant. Austerities which include fasting at prescribed periodicities and judicious inclusion of feasts also at prescribed intervals are other features of such living. It is obvious that intemperate profit orientation beyond reason and runaway consumerism will not find favour with such a way of life. Just as ill planned techno-commercial as well as farming enterprises of man have managed to spoil the health of the planet by adding to global warming, inadequate attention to the human biological clock can endanger our species in no uncertain terms too.
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After R & D and technical management experience of over three decades in petroleum and organic chemical industry, have been devoting the past fifteen years to the study of Tamil and Sanskrit classics, including dharmic works and doing some serious translation work. Have been a significant contributor to the medha journal almost since its inception upto 2013 and expect to continue my association with it.