By Regina Stracqualursi             

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of U.S. adults report regularly getting less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night. A lack of sleep and a consistent sleep schedule can have devastating consequences on circadian rhythm, the 24-hour process that controls when you sleep and wake.

The effects of circadian rhythm disruption can be easily seen when people experience jet lag following travel. The lack of sleep immediately results in side effects such as fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, and more. Research has linked a long-term lack of sleep, and the resultant disruption of the circadian clock, to many major health conditions. Now, a study led by Jennifer Hurley, assistant professor of biological sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has found that our ability to fight disease relies on circadian rhythm even more than once thought.

“What we’re starting to understand is that our circadian rhythms affect just about every system within our body,” Hurley said. “This includes the system that helps keep us healthy, our immune system.”

She and her team recently investigated how circadian rhythms impact the immune system. In studying macrophages — cells within the body that detect and destroy harmful organisms and bacteria — the researchers found that the responses of these immune cells change through the circadian control of metabolism. “We have shown there is an incredible amount of circadian timing of macrophage behavior, including metabolic changes that can regulate how our immune system responds to infection and disease” said Hurley.

The team collaborated with researchers from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) to demonstrate how the circadian clock ultimately regulates macrophage behavior. “Our data points to the need to track rhythms on a whole new level,” said Annie Curtis, senior lecturer at RCSI. “It also means that our bodies are timed by our circadian clocks more than we thought.”

The study, recently published in Genome Research, lays the groundwork for better understanding into human health and diseases.