Our internal clocks are responsible for our body’s daily rhythms, including our sleep and wake patterns and metabolism. Now, researchers from the University of Manchester in the UK say they have discovered a new mechanism by which our body clocks react to environmental changes.

The research team, led by Dr. David Bechtold, recently published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

The investigators say their discovery could open the door to solutions for individuals who experience negative health implications from shift work, jet-lag and sleep deprivation.

Most of the cells and tissues in our body contain internal biological timers, also known as circadian clocks. These are made up of molecules that interact to ensure our bodies follow a 24-hour rhythm. Because of this, the majority of us are accustomed to sleeping at night and staying awake during the day.

But there are times when our body clocks are disrupted. In other words, we are exposed to environmental changes that interfere with our natural rhythms.

“Importantly, our clocks are kept in synchrony with the environment by being responsive to light and dark information,” explains Dr. Bechtold.

Shift-work or long-haul flights, for example, involve rapid changes in the light we are exposed to.

“We are not genetically predisposed to quickly adapt to shift-work or long-haul flights, and as so our bodies’ clocks are built to resist such rapid changes,” Dr. Bechtold adds.

In the team’s study, which they conducted on mice, they found that an enzyme called casein kinase 1epsilon (CK1epsilon) controls how the body clock can be reset or adjusted by changes in light.

The investigators found that mice who did not have CK1epsilon were able to adapt from a light to dark environment – similar to a human exposed to shift-work or long-haul air travel – at a much faster rate than normal.

When mice with CK1epsilon were given drugs to block the enzyme’s activity, they were also able to adapt to the light changes at a much faster rate. Furthermore, faster adaption to the new environment reduced metabolic interference – a negative health effect associated with a disrupted body clock.

In fact, disruption to our body clock can have many implications on our health. In 2012, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that disruption to the body clock can weaken the immune system.

The researchers note that it can also increase the incidence and severity of diseases, such as obesity, diabetes and even cancer.

But could this latest discovery lead to the development of strategies that help our body clock cope with environmental changes?

According to Dr. Bechtold, there is potential:

As this work progresses in clinical terms, we may be able to enhance the clock’s ability to deal with shift work, and importantly understand how maladaptation of the clock contributes to diseases such as diabetes and chronic inflammation.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that detailed the discovery of a molecular switch that works with the body clock to tell us it is time to sleep.