“For cosmetic surgery, there might an argument for performing surgery much later – possibly in the night – because it would take longer to heal, but may result in fewer scars,” he speculates, stressing that no-one has yet tested this.
Another solution might be the installation of so-called circadian, or human-centric, lighting systems which vary in intensity and colour over the course of 24-hours, attempting to mimic natural lighting conditions outdoors. At Glostrup Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, doctors have been measuring the impact of such a system in the stroke rehabilitation ward. The data so far suggests that patients exhibit more robust circadian rhythms in response to the circadian lighting system, and show reduced depression and anxiety, compared with those in a section of the ward with conventional hospital lighting.
It may even be possible to design drugs that can stabilise circadian rhythms in hospital patients – or stall them for long enough to perform surgery at the optimal time for recovery. Such molecules are already being tested in animals, with promising results.
“In the future, I can envision a world where we are using a circadian pill, or the presence or absence of light to cure heart diseases,” says Martino.
Light, sleep and timing; we often take them for granted, but these three very basic things have the potential to transform health care.
* Linda Geddes is the author of Chasing The Sun: The New Science of Sunlight and How it Shapes Our Bodies and Minds.
What keeps our biological rhythms in time?
Circadian rhythms are generated by every cell in the body, but they are kept synchronised with each other, and with the time of day outside, by exposure to a regular cycle of light and dark.
Exposure to bright light at night delays the timing of these rhythms, whereas bright light soon after dawn advances them. They can also be shifted by altering the timing of when we eat.
Crucially though, the rhythms in our various organs and tissues don’t all shift at the same rate, so erratic exposure to light and dark, combined with eating when the body doesn’t expect it, can cause them to fall out of synchrony with each other.
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