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How Thomas Edison may have contributed to the obesity epidemic

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Artificial light and obesity: Is there a link?

A group of University of Aberdeen scientists suggest we’re getting fatter because humans are trying to ‘beat the clock. It seems Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb might be contributing to the obesity epidemic and other health problems.

How ‘circadian desynchrony' could cause obesity

Writing this week in the journal "Bioessays", the researchers postulate that soaring obesity rates could be the result of a mismatch between our natural internal rhythms and the environment, known as “circadian desynchrony".

Being out of synch with the environment – staying up late, working odd hours and eating at irregular times - could have health implications that include obesity.

Dr. Cathy Wyse who works with the chronobiology research group at the University of Aberdeen said in a press release, "Electric light allowed humans to override an ancient synchronization between the rhythm of the human clock and the environment, and over the last century, daily rhythms in meal, sleep and working times have gradually disappeared from our lives."

She adds, "Studies in microbes, plants and animals have shown that synchronization of the internal clock with environmental rhythms is important for health and survival, and it is highly likely that this is true in humans as well".

Because Circadian rhythm is controlled by our genes, Wyse says it’s possible that some people are more susceptible to the negative health effects of circadian desynchrony than others.

Working and playing at odd hours disrupts brain systems

Wyse believes trying to ‘beat the clock’ by working and recreating odd hours of the day or night disrupts systems in the brain, leading to metabolic problems that in turn spawn obesity.

The obesity epidemic may not be just the result of diet and lack of physical activity. Wyse says“There are other factors involved, and circadian desynchrony is one that deserves further attention."

This isn’t the first suggestion that disruption of the human biological clock might have major health implications.

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Researchers writing in the “Endocrine Reviews"” in 2010 explain how it all works in mammals.

“ In mammals, the circadian clock influences nearly all aspects of physiology and behavior, including sleep-wake cycles, cardiovascular activity, endocrine system, body temperature, renal activity, physiology of the gastrointestinal tract, and hepatic metabolism.”

The authors noted that heart attacks, acute cases of congestive heart failure, hypertensive crises and asthma attacks all peak at a certain time of the day, based on epidemiological study results.

They also note the high rates of obesity, heart disease and metabolic abnormalities among shift workers whose “…normal synchrony between the light-dark cycle, sleeping, and eating is disturbed.”

They authors, in support of Wyse’s paper concluded, Indeed, disrupted biological rhythms might lead to attenuated circadian feeding rhythms, disrupted metabolism, cancer proneness, and reduced life expectancy.

Resetting your internal clock for better health

Staying healthy and avoiding obesity may mean simple lifestyle changes that should become routine.

David White, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for Philips Home Healthcare Solutions writing in the Huffington Post suggests going to sleep and awakening at the same time every day, getting exposure to plenty of bright light during the day and turning down the lights at night.

Is it possible that circadian desycnrony is making us fat? Thomas Edison may indeed have contributed to the obesity epidemic by inventing the light bulb. Circadian rhythm disruption has implications for human health that should be further explored according to the authors.

"Living Against the Clock; Does Loss of Daily Rhythms Cause Obesity?"
DOI: 10.1002/bies.201200067
August 30, 2012

Endocrine Reviews
"Metabolism and Circadian Rhythms—Implications for Obesity"
doi: 10.1210/er.2009-0014
February, 2010

Image credit: Morguefile