Understanding the skin’s internal clock and cycles
Everything in nature is governed by rhythms and cycles, even if we choose to ignore this well known fact. The cycles of seasons, years, months, days and the stars are all linked with each other. Our bodies are intrinsically designed to live in sync with these rhythms and the entire ageing process is based on cycles along with various external factors that we are all aware of.
There has been a great deal of research geared towards gaining a deeper understanding of - and trying to intervene or even defy - the ageing cycle; and the quest for eternal youth has been the name of the game, through biohacking one’s DNA and genes etc, so that we can live longer and have a better quality of life. There has been a timeless obsession with one’s appearance and skin to look youthful and this continues in the current era with major advancements in the beauty/aesthetic and cosmetic industries.
Whilst we can certainly not turn back the clock or defy time, what can help us is understanding our body/skin cycles and the science of Circadian rhythm that our body comes intrinsically built with. The Circadian rhythm is an endogenous time-keeping system that monitors a daily cycle of 24 hours.
Most of us know what we experience after flying halfway around the world; working a night shift; a long day; the drain from a late night etc but our internal ticker actually has vast implications for our health and wellbeing. Back in 2017 three scientists, whilst studying fruit flies, discovered a gene that determined their daily rhythms, called the ‘period’ gene. Their study found that this gene contains a code to make a particular protein (PER) that fluctuates over a 24 hour cycle, rising at night time and falling throughout the day. This is exactly what plants and animals have been doing for thousands of years on this planet and even human beings at various points in history. Ancient wisdom always taught how to reconnect our bio-circadian rhythms and nurture our intimate relationship with nature and the earth’s rotations around the sun. The impact that our body clock (Circadian Rhythm) has on our skin within a 24 hour cycle is similar to this gene, and our body clocks also have a profound impact on our metabolism, body temperature, moods and our hormonal balance etc.
So let’s understand what is this Circadian Rhythm
These Circadian rhythms are regulated by a master clock (group of nerves in the hypothalamus of the brain) and it responds primarily to environmental cues of light and dark exposure, air temperature that in turn triggers the release of hormones and influence metabolism and sleep, and ultimately our skin health. Our skin is more active when it comes to cell regeneration and repair in the evening and at night as compared to during the day. One of the reasons is that the stem cells in the bottom layer of our epidermis (that create new cells) are most active late at night as they are more likely to have the ‘peace’ to do so, without being constantly disturbed by the need for ‘fire-fighting’ (ie defending against environmental aggressors such as sun light and urban pollution). Good quality sleep is not only restorative but also extremely important for nightly cellular repair, regeneration and our immune systems. The two distinct sleep phases: REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (non Rapid Eye Movement) are important to understand here. During NREM, blood flow is directed from the brain and the body more towards the periphery, ie. the skin. Thus, a restorative hormone flow is established and cellular repair is enhanced.
But a lack of sleep or being out of one’s rhythm in regards to sleeping times can contribute to inflammation, even if just for a short period, let alone weeks or years.. In fact, sleep deprivation is thought to increase all sorts of age-related processes as well as chronic health problems.
Melatonin levels that are released naturally at night start to rise in the evening and peak around midnight before slowly subsiding again. Our melatonin levels are impaired when the sleep cycle is disturbed for any reason. The same melatonin also protects our skin from the sun’s damaging effects and counteracts mitochondrial and DNA damage. And because Melatonin supposedly declines with age, any sleep deprivation due to lifestyle only hastens this process which in turn starts to effect the skin. Insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance and high blood pressure can be impaired by sleep deprivation and which again accelerate the skin’s ageing process. This, in a nutshell, is what Circadian Rhythm is all about.
Breaking down the Circadian Rhythm in terms of skin behaviour and its needs
It’s important to understand that our skin is at its peak in the mornings and skin hydration is the most important factor at this time of the day, as it also acts as a protective barrier against infection and dehydration. The skin also appears most attractive in the mornings due to the proliferation of new cells at night. There is a minimum loss of water content through the skin that occurs in the morning and an increased water loss during the night. The water content of the outermost layer of the skin (with cells containing keratin, a fibrous protective protein) and the oily surface on the skin are important factors in the appearance and function of the skin. High water content and a low sebum (oil) secretion are considered main features for a good skin.
Most doctors and skin experts will recommend using anti-oxidant skincare (along with SPF) in the morning to combat environmental factors and a repair cream - (such as Vitamin A) in the evening to support the skin’s night time repair mode- where the skin tends to regenerate and new cells develop. The key is to not overdo it with night applications as the skin’s barrier function is not at its optimum at night. But all this is secondary only to one’s lifestyle as sleep is the crucial single most important factor in supporting the skin’s Circadian Rhythm. And great sleep as most of us know can only come from how we are in our day and how detached we can be to what happens, which is not always an easy thing to do considering the millions of things we are constantly juggling in our lives.
Some equally important contributing factors as we go into colder season.
1- Seasons play an important role and when our bodies synchronise with the changing seasons in regards to our lifestyle, food/drinks etc we can see benefits play out in terms of our skin health, our inner vitality and mojo. Many people tend to feel a bit ‘blah’ in general during colder seasons and often go into some sort of hibernation, which is usually accompanied by indulgence in (comfort) food/drink etc, that can further deprive one of true well-being.
2- Rest as much as possible during colder seasons. This is totally different from going into hibernation aka ‘withdrawal’ mode. Changing light-dark cycles affect melatonin production and this can disrupt our Circadian rhythms but effectively if one learns to rest in tune with the cycles then one can actually be more in touch with what’s going on in one’s inner world. Back in the day lifestyle practices across some very ancient cultures like India, Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China etc were very obedient to cycles. People knew to awaken with the sunrise if not earlier, work through the daylight and then winding down to rest as the sun set. But our modern civilisations have replaced this wellbeing practice with stimulations of food, drink, late nights, tv, and any other kind of stimulation that can leave ya disconnected from our body’s true rhythms.
3- Building rituals that support our CR is a great step. Dimming lights, lighting candles, taking the time to have a bath, sitting down with a loved one to connect and reflect on the day passed by, going to bed by 9/10 pm, avoiding heavy dinners and stimulations etc are good examples of this and can have very tangible benefits on one’s skin. There is a natural glow there that cannot be replaced by any kind of aesthetic treatment. Also daily moisturising the skin, drinking lots of water, keeping your lymphatic system flowing with massage and exercise, all have immense long term benefits especially during the colder months.
4- Focus on your breath- this ought to be our ‘go to’ a few hundred times in a day that is packed with so much. But how many of us can really feel and breathe our own breath. Go for a walk, meditate or just take a moment to take a few deep breaths and slow down.
There is no magic formula. When we learn to slow down, observe, listen to ours bodies and feel our way through life - we naturally come into sync with our rhythms- the same rhythm that moves nature and this has the power on so many levels for us to constantly keep renewing, and staying refreshed as we go about our lives.
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Author: Dr Amit Goyal, Aesthetic Skin Doctor at MK Aesthetics is also a well established GP Partner at a prestigious surgery in Milton Keynes with an interest in Dermatology and is the lead GP for Dermatology in Milton Keynes. He is also part of the Dermatology team at Bedford Hospital.
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