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The biology of time

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The biology of time

DR. SATCHIN PANDA is a leading expert in the field of circadian rhythm research. He is Associate Professor in the Regulatory Lab at the Salk Institute, a Pew Scholar, and a recipient of the Dana Foundation Award in Brain and Immune System Imaging. His book, The Circadian Code, has helped many people to regain their energy, sleep well and lose weight. Here he is interviewed by UDAY KUMAR on how he developed the ideas in his book, and what inspired his research.


Q: Good morning, sir. It’s very nice to see you. Thank you so much for taking the time. I believe in karmic coincidences, and one day I was thinking that there should be something around the circadian code, not a complex research paper but something simpler for the common person to read and understand, beyond superstition and ritual, which really explains the science. Then I discovered your book, and I was very happy.

SP: Thank you.

Q: The more I read it, the more I can feel your sincerity in putting the contents across.

SP: Yes, it is difficult because being a scientist it’s always hard to simplify and at the same time not to lose the facts.

Q: Yes, it’s a very fine line.

I wanted to talk to you about your circadian clock app. I’ve personally been using it and it’s a very comprehensive app! It covers a lot of things.

But first, can you talk a little more about your childhood, especially time with your grandparents?

SP: It’s pretty well described in the book, and as an idea it’s immense. Only in retrospect, after studying circadian rhythms, could I understand the difference between the way my paternal and maternal grandparents lived their lives. My maternal grandfather was working for the Indian Railways in a small town in Odisha so at times he had to do the night shift. He had access to relatively good health care. My paternal grandfather was a farmer, who lived on a farm and didn’t have access to health care because it was a small village in the middle of nowhere. The end stages of their lives were very different. My maternal grandfather, who ate better food and had better access to health care, succumbed to a neurodegenerative disease. He died earlier than my paternal grandfather, who lived in sync with Nature. He didn’t have electricity, he slept well, and he ate a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. I guess the only thing he bought from the market was salt. I can’t remember anything else, not even jaggery.

In retrospect it was interesting to see how these two lives played out. I think that also gave me some early insight into the seasonality of plants and flowers, and it brought some curiosity. Most of science talks about how x affects y, but it doesn’t talk about timing. So, I realized that maybe the biology of time would be the next frontier in science. That’s why I decided to work on the biology of time.

Q: Beautiful! I love the phrase “biology of time.” I also noticed the way the time with your grandparents nurtured a natural curiosity in you. You talk about this even in your TED talk, for example, your sister telling you that the frog comes up at a certain time. I thought that was just fascinating.

SP: Back then, we didn’t have the time displayed everywhere. In those days, perhaps we had one watch in the house. It is interesting that animals and plants keep track of time to fifteen minutes accuracy, or even five minutes accuracy, irrespective of what time they go to bed and wake up in the morning.

Q: There is something to be said about the world today. I work in the technology sector and ten years ago I was also involved in some BPO activity and went to India to visit one company. At 2 a.m. all these young people were working like it was like broad daylight, and I was worried for them. I’m more worried now knowing the science. What are they doing to their biological clocks? Can it be reversed? Can we heal? What does science say?



Animals and plants keep track of time
to fifteen minutes accuracy, or even
five minutes accuracy, irrespective of
what time they go to bed and
wake up in the morning.


So, we are saying that some of it can be reversed. One can live a healthier life. It’s not irreversible damage. Even if you take the case of a car. I may not have taken good care of my car, but if I start taking good care of it, it will not continue to degrade at the same rate. If I reduce the rate of degradation I will get a few more years out of the car. The same thing happens when taking care of your health. If you think about the modern healthcare system, where we find medication and surgery, underlying all that is one universal principle which stems from the germ theory of disease. Sanitation, vaccination, and antibiotics are the foundation of the modern healthcare system. For example, there is no way a person can successfully go through surgery without sanitation and antibiotics. Similarly, the foundations of day-to-day physical health are also three factors: sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. Whether a person is healthy or sick, if they don’t pay attention to these three things, their system will break down. Conversely, no matter how sick they are, if they pay attention to these three, then the chance of recovery is much better.



Q: I think that’s where the whole notion of prevention and cure comes into play. Money put into prevention probably goes much further than trying to fix the system.

SP: Yes, but we should not make the distinction between prevention and cure because people who are already sick feel that they have missed the train. For example, when somebody gets diabetes, it may never be cured. They learn to manage it. Giving them hope that they can manage it and stay healthier is a very powerful message, because most people will pay attention to their lifestyle only after they get the disease. We should not tell them, “Hey you missed the train because your condition cannot be reversed.” Instead, everything we are talking about actually helps them live life to their full potential, irrespective of what condition they may have.




The foundations of day-to-day physical health
are also three factors:
sleep, nutrition, and physical activity.
Whether a person is healthy or sick,
if they don’t pay attention to
these three things, their system
will break down.
Conversely, no matter how sick they are,
if they pay attention to these three,
then the chance of recovery is much better.


Q: I love that. It’s a very ennobling message. There’s always an opportunity to get on the train and start from wherever you are, which is what you say a lot in the book – it’s never too late. And to your point about observation, especially when observing plants, there is a line in your book – it was like watching a Broadway show sitting in the front row – and you also describe vanilla farmers. Can you talk a little bit about observing plants and how that triggered your curiosity further as you went along?

SP: The plants and animals on the planet have circadian rhythms. That’s how they adapt to cold, warmth, and everything else. For example, if you plant seeds, you’ll notice that the seedlings spread their leaves during the daytime to capture the sun, but at night they close their leaves as if they’re shivering from cold, because they want to reduce the heat loss.

Similarly, depending on what time of day pollinators are present, most flowers open their petals at a specific time. When I was working with vanilla, I discovered that it flowers very early in the morning before sunrise, and that’s why the farmers wake up around one or two a.m. and go to the vanilla field to hand-pollinate the flowers before sunrise. Being in tune with the circadian rhythm of the vanilla flowers was breaking the workers’ circadian clocks because they had to wake up early! I observed that a lot of the farmers in the vanilla fields slowly developed an allergic reaction to vanilla. I don’t know whether it’s genetic, because of exposure to a lot of pollen, or due to a combination of their circadian rhythm being broken, being sleep deprived, and exposure to the allergen. That’s why the chance of getting allergies might have increased.

It is an interesting observation, but I guess these days we don’t have time for these observations because instead we observe what is trending on Twitter and Facebook. What is interesting is that if you mine the Twitter data, there are very nice circadian, weekly, and annual rhythms. In Google Analytics you can look for these patterns in the searches that people make. You’ll clearly see that the things people think about, worry about, or are curious about have circadian rhythms. As you might imagine, searches for pain medication increase at night. People search for coffee more often in the morning and late afternoon. Studying these data, you start to know the predictive value of rhythms to help us anticipate events as opposed to just being responsive. Anticipation versus response actually increases efficiency by 10% to 20%.

Q: Wow!

SP: For example, if you are opening a shop in a market and you know that people only come to the market by 9 or 10 a.m., after finishing their morning activities at home, what is the point of opening the shop at 6 a.m.? Also, it’ll be useless to open at 12 noon because you have missed the morning customers. So, rhythms are played out in commerce. Plants turn their photosynthetic mechanism on one or two hours before sunrise. They are opening shop one hour before sunrise so that they can get the first rays of the sun and convert them into energy.

Having that circadian clock gives them the advantage of getting maybe 10% to 15% extra photosynthesis. The circadian clock helps the plant kingdom fix 10% more carbon. And imagine, if they didn’t fix that additional 10% we would be dead by now. Then, at the end of the day, photosynthesis winds down one hour before sunset, so they don’t waste any unnecessary energy to keep the photosynthetic system going

Q: Brilliant!

SP: It’s all about prediction.



Q: As you rightly said, one of the key things is that rhythm is universal, and if we flow with it, it supports us, whereas if we go against it, there is friction. In Heartfulness, it is recommended that we meditate early in the morning, before dawn, and do the detox cleaning practice in the evening, and a prayer before sleep at night. The timings are based on the circadian importance of getting better returns at certain times of the day for certain activities. Is this also the case with other aspects of lifestyle? For example, is there research on recommended times for students to study? A lot of kids nowadays burn the midnight oil.

SP: Sometimes this can be taken out of context. For example, we know that there are better times to exercise, but that’s for elite athletes who want that extra one second advantage. If we say that late afternoon is the best time for exercise, then people who need to exercise may say, “Well, morning may not be the best time to exercise.” So, in the pursuit of perfection, we should not give up what is good now. For sleep, it’s very clear that we should sleep at night. We have excellent sleep when we go to bed at 9 or 10 p.m., whereas we cannot sleep for six to seven hours, even when we try, during the daytime. But that’s very different from exercise, or studying for an exam, because when there is an exam, we have to study. We cannot say, “No, I’m just waiting for my best time!”



Q: I’ve used that excuse a few times, but it didn’t work out very well. I like what you are saying, and it is the same with meditation. Even though there is a best time of the day to meditate, it is still better to do it now than wait for that ideal time.


To be continued.



Interview by UDAY KUMAR



Satchin Panda

Satchin Panda

Dr. Panda is a leading expert in the field of circadian rhythm research. He is Associate Professor at the Regulatory Lab at the Salk Institute, a Pew Scholar, and a recipient of the Dana Foundation Award in Brain and Immune System Imaging. His book, The Circadian Code: Lose Weight, Supercharge You Energy, and Transform Your... Read more

5 COMMENTS

  1. This is a fantastic article. Being an Odia who lives in Orissa, I feel immensely proud too. I am going to buy his book and re-educate myself. Thank you

  2. Last week I had read circadian cycle and i am studying deeply with metabolic syndrome and it’s relationship between circadian rhythms !!it is interesting !!

  3. Very interesting very informative and very useful knowledge Half a century of my life I have lived worked and grown up and higher in Australia . I indulge in creative writing firstly it was a side hobby but now main occupation . So pleased to learn about the influence of circadian clock on moods Satvic Rajisic and Tamsick I have experienced all these moods . You are right . they can be invoked for their best effect in different periods of night and day The reason it is well prescribed by our wise Rishis to avail this circadian cycle What a beautiful sense nature has implanted in birds bees and plants

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