Biological rhythms and sleep research are currently amongst the most important areas in public health. Sleep pathologies have reached epidemic proportions over the past decades and a large number of people worldwide suffer from chronic ‘circadian’ disruptions, i.e. conditions describing the increasing discrepancy between the timing of our internal biological body clocks and that of our social environment. These include various forms of sleep disturbances and rhythm disorders, such as ‘social jet lag‘, i.e. the disruption of an individual’s sleep/wake rhythm due to social constraints (e.g. work hours). Social jet lag is directly comparable to ‘desynchronosis‘, commonly known as jet lag. Desynchronosis has been classified as one of the circadian rhythms sleep disorders and while the issue of jet lag is especially pronounced for airline crew, social jet lag affects a large number of people chronically resulting in health problems, including sleep, cardiovascular, and metabolic pathologies, digestive disorders, impaired immune function, increased cancer risks, and a drastic decrease of mental and physical performance.
Dr Roland Brandstaetter from the School of Biosciences of the University of Birmngham has studied various aspects of circadian biology in humans over the last years and found that circadian disruptions, i.e. disordered sleep/wake rhythms that do not match with the social environment, are very pronounced in different groups of professionals of varying ages. This mismatch of ‘internal biological time’ and the time constraints of the environment appear to have a big impact on health, well-being, and performance. Following a comprehensive analysis of various sleep/wake-related parameters with a newly developed chronometric test and longitudinal investigations with novel sleep/wake diaries, intervention strategies can be placed that help individuals to adjust their sleep/wake cycles. All intervention strategies are based on circadian oscillator theory and directly informed by research undertaken at the University of Birmingham. Dr Brandstaetter, who has focused his research on the development of new tools to identify circadian disruptions and on the development of new therapeutic approaches to generate impact and create a real world application of basic science, said:
“Designing new tools, their validation, and the development of new therapeutic approaches is a demanding challenge in a scientific environment in which success if often exclusively measured according to traditional research output criteria, such as publications, and grant income. Our novel therapy is voluntary, completely non-invasive and, in simple terms, a correction of the life style of an individual to bring the person back into alignment with environmental time. Very often, individuals get caught up in a vicious circle of wrongdoings that give their biological clock the wrong signals. Such mistakes can be as simple as caffeine intake at the wrong times or food intake at the wrong times but can also be very complex and result in severe sleep disruptions that lead to sleep onset times as late as 5am in the morning which makes it impossible for individuals to adhere to regular work schedules and perform well in their daily jobs. We now have the tools to identify these issues and place intervention strategies.”
“We have studied thousands of individuals and found that the age group most susceptible to circadian disruptions are the 15 to 25 year olds. We find severe disruptions of the sleep/wake cycle, pronounced social jet lag, low sleep quality, prolonged sleep inertia, malnutrition, and decreased performance levels in a large number of individuals. University students are amongst the most affected. University timetables hit them at an age when we find the highest proportion of extreme ‘owls’. Thus, we have launched a sleep clinic, a joint initiative with the Student Wellbeing Service, to provide support and help to our students to improve their well-being. We have a growing number of ‘clients’ from within and outside the University, also including top UK athletes, who often experience problems due to strict training schedules and frequent travelling. The cure for jet lag is our next target, but that’s another story.”
“Generating impact and real world applications of basic science belong to the most important targets of future research, probably more important than the traditional performance measures of publications and grant income. The mismatch of internal biological time and environmental time has been neglected as a cause of sleep problems for a very long time but latest research allows now to tackle sleep issues from a completely new angle, without the need of medication, such as anti-depressants and sleeping pills that are often used in conventional therapy but can actually cause more problems than resolving issues.”
The newly launched ‘Circadian Advice Bureau’ and ‘Sleep Clinic’ are steps in the direction of increasing public understanding of science and directly linking the academic world with the real world. Impact of research does not always have to be ‘indirect’, it can be directly applied, and this is what this new applied research in the School of Biosciences is all about.
Nahid Sayed, Head of Wellbeing at Student Support Services of the University of Birmingham said: “Approximately 80% of all students who register with Student Support report sleep problems as part of the issues for which they are seeking help. We use the new chronometric test and sleep/wake diaries developed by Dr Brandstaetter to identify sleep problems in our students and help them to develop strategies and action plans to enhance their academic and social life.”
For further information on the services and therapies of the Circadian Advice Bureau and the Sleep Clinic, please contact
Dr Roland Brandstaetter
University of Birmingham Circadian Advice Bureau, School of Biosciences
Head of Wellbeing Service