Ella Al-Shamahi tells us why we need to lis­ten to our body clocks

Focus-Science and Technology - - THE FOCUS INTERVIEW: ELLA AL-SHAMAHI -

Ev­ery­one on Earth marches to the same beat: our bod­ies have an in­ter­nal clock that keeps us on a 24-hour cy­cle. It’s fun­da­men­tally im­por­tant for our sleep cy­cle, but it’s also cru­cial for our gen­eral health and well-be­ing, and is linked to ev­ery­thing from our hunger and me­tab­o­lism to our heart func­tion, men­tal health and im­mune sys­tem. Stud­ies have linked a dis­rupted body clock to a greater risk of di­a­betes, heart dis­ease and cancer. With this in mind, James Lloyd caught up with Ella Al-Shamahi, an evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist and pre­sen­ter of a new Hori­zon episode on the body clock, to find out how we can hack our sense of time and why she locked a for­mer Com­mando in a nu­clear bunker for 10 days…

Why did you lock some­one in a nu­clear bunker?

Be­cause we live in this mod­ern, tech­no­log­i­cal world, we don’t re­ally re­alise how pow­er­ful our body clock is, nor the fac­tors that af­fect it. So the idea was: put a Com­mando [Aldo Kane is a for­mer Royal Marines Com­mando] in an un­der­ground nu­clear bunker, with no ac­cess to sun­light and no way of telling the time, and con­trol his ac­cess to ar­ti­fi­cial light… and see what that tells us about our body clocks.

What ex­actly is the body clock?

It’s our in­ter­nal clock that keeps all our body func­tions in sync. It’s reg­u­lated by a tiny re­gion in the brain lo­cated in the hy­po­thal­a­mus, and it takes its cues from the day-night cy­cle of sun­light. The brain uses nerves and hor­mones to trans­mit this 24-hour rhythm to our in­ter­nal or­gans, which helps to tell our body when it needs to eat, sleep, wake and work.

As an evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist, the re­ally in­ter­est­ing thing for me is that the body clock is a highly ‘con­served’ mech­a­nism, which means that it’s stuck around for a long time in evo­lu­tion­ary terms – mil­lions and mil­lions of years. If some­thing is highly con­served, that usu­ally means it’s pretty use­ful. Even fruit flies have a 24-hour body clock.

What did the bunker ex­per­i­ment in­volve?

There were three phases. In phase one, for the first few days, we didn’t do any­thing other than just put Aldo down there and mon­i­tor him while he went about a nor­mal daily rou­tine –

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