When Dr. Fred Turek climbed the steps to the stage in the Phase One building auditorium this morning, he was ready to speak about what he calls “the new frontier in medicine.”
Turek founded the Northwestern University Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology 20 years ago and he’s still its director. He’s one of the most important scholars in the field of circadian rhythms, the study of the internal clock that tells animals when to eat and when to sleep. His interests overlap with some of the work done by the people who were in the audience, faculty and staff members affiliated with WSU’s Sleep and Performance Research Center on the Spokane campus.
“But I’m a circadian guy. I’m not a sleep guy,” he joked with the audience. “Sleep is too complicated.”
Turek says, throughout their time on Earth, humans (and many other animals) have followed their natural rhythms. They eat and are active during the day and sleep at night. During the 19th century, electric lights were invented and it became possible to do daytime tasks at night. That’s great for our productivity, but it turns out it’s bad for our bodies.
WSU sleep researchers have made important discoveries while investigating the effects of disrupted sleep and working odd shifts on human cognitive and workplace performance.
But Turek argues fooling with our internal circadian clocks has had much more far-reaching effects. He says researchers have learned the disruptions affect not just our brains, but every cell in our bodies. So people who work and sleep odd hours, for example, are also more likely to eat at odd hours, which sometimes leads to weight gain and health problems such as diabetes.
Turek says scientists are finding that our brain rhythms are often out of balance with the rhythms in the other parts of our bodies. And he says it’s always not something that a little bit of extra sleep can rectify.
Turek spoke this morning at a retreat for members of WSU Spokane’s Sleep and Performance Research Center.