If you’ve ever felt crushed by jet lag after a long flight, you know what it means for your body’s rhythms to be temporarily out of whack. Thanks to properly functioning genes, your internal clock can bounce back and keep ticking in order to regulate sleep/wake cycles, health and mood. However, new research shows that long-term alcohol dependency can seriously alter these “circadian clock” genes, causing insomnia and depression.
Researchers studied 22 men diagnosed with alcohol dependency, as well as a dozen healthy men. They took blood samples from each man to measure their levels of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). This magical ingredient, mRNA, allows for the production of proteins that the circadian clock genes need in order to function. Protein-happy genes signal the hypothalamus, the part of our brain that houses our internal clocks.
The results showed markedly lower mRNA levels of those genes in the heavy drinkers when compared to the healthy subjects. In other words, the men who were chronic drinkers could not properly regulate their circadian clock genes, and even with early treatment for alcohol withdrawal, this problem did not improve. When this gene expression is destroyed by chronic alcohol consumption, circadian rhythm dysfunction often follows. In addition to a confused sleep/wake cycle, this dysfunction may be linked to numerous physiological problems such as depression or even cancer.
Through the course of a day, we go through changes in wakefulness, body temperature, hormone production, brain waves and hunger. Changes in daylight cue our 24-hour rhythms, or circadian rhythms. These daily rhythms keep us in balance. Our circadian clock genes drive this internal timing system. If these genes become unregulated, the body can no longer “program” its functions and behaviors necessary to survive.
Unraveling the mystery of DNA is helping to expand the understanding of alcoholism and its associated health problems; it’s unknown how long-term sobriety can aid in improved body clock function. In the meantime, getting help for alcohol dependency may very well help you get a good night’s sleep and beat depression in the long run.