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How Does The Body Clock Affect The Development Of OA

16th May 2019

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Various factors can affect our body clocks but this is usually a temporary situation. A series of late nights, shift patterns that change and long flights can produce temporary effects such as mood changes and sleep disruption. We commonly refer to this as jet lag and do not view it as a serious problem but it is now widely recognised that our biological clocks are also important to our general well-being and health.

Two five-year studies to investigate how disruption of our circadian rhythms can affect osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis commenced at the University of Manchester in 2014. Over £1 million was invested in these studies by Versus Arthritis and their findings are now helping us to better understand the role of the body clock in arthritis. New treatments are also being developed as a result of the findings.

About the body clock

Almost all living things have an innate timing device and humans have a biological clock that drives circadian rhythms in all the body’s cells. These are changes that occur in a 24 hour cycle and affect our mental, behavioural and physical status. Circadian rhythms are basically controlled by light and dark in the environment and are responsible for the way our bodies work. They influence hormone release, sleeping and waking, digestion and eating habits and body temperature. If the body clock runs too slowly or too fast, the circadian rhythms can be disrupted and this can affect our well-being in a negative manner.

Ageing and the body clock

The way in which the ageing process can affect our body clocks and its relationship to osteoarthritis is being researched by Professor of Chronobiology Qing-Jun Meng at the University of Manchester.

According to Professor Meng, the body clock results from evolution because organisms need to be able to anticipate and adapt in order to survive in an environment that is changing. Being able to adapt to the time of day optimises how the body works and if the body clock is disrupted, the body may not work as it should.

The ageing process can cause our body clocks to become out of sync and can compromise our circadian rhythms. The research carried out by Professor Meng looked at how this could affect the articular cartilage which is the smooth layer that covers the ends of bones in the joints. When the cartilage is healthy, it enables the bones to glide easily over each other but if the cartilage has degenerated as it does in osteoarthritis, the joints can be stiff and painful.

Although the major symptoms of osteoarthritis are pain and stiffness in the joints, there are other symptoms that may be experienced. These include tenderness of the joints, increased pain and stiffness after rest or a period of keeping static and a knobbly appearance of the joint. Sometimes you may be aware of a cracking sound in the joint or feel grating on movement. The range of movement can also be limited and sometimes there is muscle wasting and weakness.

Any joint in the body can be affected by osteoarthritis but the knees and hips are most commonly affected. The small joints in the hands are another common site for osteoarthritis.

Pain and stiffness can cause difficulties with moving the affected joints and undertaking some activities. Symptoms tend to come and go at different times and can also be related to activity levels or even weather conditions.

The research at the University of Manchester has shown that the repair and the degeneration of tissue are controlled by the circadian rhythms in the cartilage. At some points in the 24 hour cycle such as when the joints are moving, cartilage tissue is broken down. It is repaired at other times and repair cannot take place when degeneration is occurring.

The importance of circadian rhythms in tissue repair was also tested by removing specific genes from cells to cause their circadian rhythms to flat line. In mice, this caused cartilage damage and accelerated ageing, suggesting that the role played by the body clock in tissue health and repair is crucial. The research team has gone on to explore whether it would be possible to boost dampened circadian rhythms through new treatments.

Professor Meng’s aim is to find new solutions that will help the body clocks in cartilage tissue to continue to work properly, despite ageing, so that people with osteoarthritis can enjoy an improved quality of life with less pain and joint damage.

The role of the body clock in rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is linked to the immune system and the relationship between the immune system and the body clock is being researched by Dr Julie Gibbs. The way in which the body clock and the immune system together affect inflammation is the focus of her research.

According to Dr Gibbs, the body clock controls the way the immune system works and how it is balanced. Disruption of the body clock has been shown to affect the immune system negatively in both humans and animals. Our bodies can lose the ability to deal with threats such as infection, inflammation and normal daily challenges if the circadian rhythms are irregular.

In Dr Gibbs’ study, daily patterns of inflammation were mapped and explored in order to increase the understanding of the 24 hour cycle. The aim was to understand when drug treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, both new and existing, might be most effective or cause fewer side effects by identifying possible key times to administer these.

Inflammatory arthritis can often cause people to experience worse symptoms in the early morning and Dr Gibbs wanted to examine possible causes for this and to find out whether inflammation increasing at certain times of the day was due to an immune response to circadian rhythms.

In mice, the research found that there was significantly less inflammation in the cells in the joints during the night when examined over a twenty four hour period. Dr Gibbs explained that the reduction in inflammation appeared to be associated with a higher level of a protein known as cryptochrome that was found in the cells during the night. These findings were replicated in human cells.

This research has led to consideration of the possibility that changing the time at which patients take anti-inflammatory drugs that are already on the market may improve their effectiveness. The potential of new drug treatments to improve the way the body clock works is also being investigated. It is hoped that this research may result in new treatment options that could have a positive impact on the wellbeing of people with inflammatory arthritis.

How to maintain a healthy body clock

Having a regular daily schedule can help to keep the body clock in sync with the environment and enhance circadian rhythms. This is beneficial for our health and general well being, so following these guidelines can help.

Establish a set time for going to bed and waking up each day. You should stick to the same routine on weekdays and at the weekends.

Ensure the bedroom is totally dark. You may need thicker curtains to keep the light out. Do not look at screens before going to sleep. Melatonin causes us to become drowsy and ready to go to sleep and exposure to light can inhibit it from being produced.

Eat healthily and establish a regular mealtime routine. The body clock can also be affected by food and the regularity of meals.

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