Increased screen time, sleep deprivation, shift work and indoor living – today’s modern life has been dubbed a “circadian rhythm nightmare.”
But driven by an increasing consumer focus on mind-body wellness, a new wave of solutions promise to reset our internal master clock for optimal sleep, nutrition, performance and overall quality of life.
Can circadian rhythm be the next frontier of mental wellbeing innovation? We take a look at the science behind this powerful system and potential opportunities moving forward.
Understanding the Body’s Clock
All species that successfully evolved on earth have adapted themselves to the planet’s unique environment. One key element of that environment is the day/night cycle, based on the planet’s revolutions around the sun. Nearly all species on earth evidence cellular oscillations that are synchronized to these environmental cycles. These mechanisms facilitate the behavioral, metabolic, and physiological adaptations that in a very real way contribute to a species’ success (Panda et al., 2002)…or possible demise.
Circadian clocks – from the Latin root “circa” or “around” (as in around the sun) and “dies” or “day.” are found in numerous bodily systems, notably in the central and peripheral nervous systems, and some research claims that they are actually present in nearly every cell of the body (Mohawk et al., 2012).
Together, these clocks produce the body’s circadian rhythms. The regulation of these rhythms is absolutely crucial to our wellbeing. How crucial? Ask anyone who’s ever had a bad case of jetlag, and was barely able to function. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Optimal circadian rhythms determine our energy levels, performance, cognitive function (Schmidt et al., 2007), appetite, metabolic processes (Maury, 2019), stress levels (Lundkvist, 2018) and more. They affect our creativity, facilitate the kind of disruptive thinking that high-tech entrepreneurs dream of, and sharpen our focus, attention, memory and engagement. They even affect the ethics of our behavior, our willpower, and our emotional stability.
On the flip side, disturbances in circadian rhythm are associated with severe emotional and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, increased aggression, and even neurodegeneration.
Tapping into a Powerful System
Tapping into such a powerful, all-encompassing physical and emotional system could be a holy grail for wellbeing technology. Positively intervening in circadian rhythm carries enormous wellbeing potential, not to mention commercial opportunities.
The reason that tech can be so effective? The circadian system continuously adapts itself based on external cues and signals from the body. It operates in a continuous feedback loop with the environment. And this means that manipulating external cues via technological intervention can realign the system.
Studies show that circadian re-alignment can be supported by correctly timing meals (Manoogian & Panda, 2017; Patton & Mistlberger, 2013), light exposure (Tahkamo et al., 2019), caffeine ingestion (Wyatt et al., 2004), and exogenous melatonin (Caspi, 2004).
What’s Out There
Today, we see circadian rhythm tech as a fragmented product market that includes nutrition ($702 billion in 2018) and sleep ($432 billion in 2019), within the overall wellbeing market that is valued at over $1.5 trillion.
Here are roughly four categories of products on the market that affect circadian rhythm:
- Light – This category of technology includes circadian lighting, indoor lighting that mimics natural light and light therapy, in which intense light is directed to the eyes and ears to provide a light “dosage” (~10-20 min per day).
- Many recent studies have shown that our ever-increasing dependence on artificial light sources (aka falling asleep in front of our phone and computer screens) has wreaked havoc on our overall sleep quality, and may even contribute to the causation of cancer, diabetes and other diseases.
- Drugs – This category comprises over-the-counter supplements like caffeine and Melatonin, as well as prescription sleep medications.
- Nutrition –While there are no shortage of nutrition coaching and planning solutions on the market today, we could not identify a solution uniquely offering a circadian rhythm-based nutrition plan.
- Sleep – The broadest category of interventions that affect circadian rhythm includes wearables that measure users’ sleep and real-time interventions, such as thermal mattresses, brain stimulation devices and more.
Zooming in: Sleep Tech
In the last few years sleep health has become a top consumer trend and emerged as a billion dollar pillar of the wellness market. The current product landscape can be segmented into five product categories.
- Sound – White noise generators, binaural beats, music, and more
- Neurostimulation – Non-invasive technology that stimulates specific areas of brain to improve sleep quality; NYX has developed a wearable headband that combines EEG and neurotechnology to improve and monitor sleep
- Temperature – Thermoregulated sheets, blankets, and mattresses from companies like Eight Sleep
- Sleep tech – Various sleep tracking devices, wearables, and clocks
- Sleep apps and services – Dreem offers personalized tips to improve sleep based on real-time bi-physiolgical measurements; Timeshifter tailors plans to optimize users’ circadian clock according to the users desired goals (e.g., adjusting to new timezone and shift work etc.)
Challenges & Considerations for Circadian Tech Products
Technology addressing circadian rhythms has the potential to unlock some of the secrets of wellbeing. Yet what we’re seeing in the market are partial solutions that target some aspects of circadian rhythm, but ignore the larger picture.
This is the key commercial and scientific challenge facing circadian entrepreneurs: creating tech that can provide a real time snapshot of one’s circadian rhythm status while still effectively impacting individual elements of the system.
Other critical factors that should be considered:
- Timing – While the effect of each technological intervention by itself can be scientifically validated, the timing of their usage will determine whether it will shift individual’s circadian clock to earlier or later.
- Practicality and adherence – Circadian interventions are deeply personal and need to be automatically adjusted not only to physiological parameters, but also to correspond with the users’ needs and practical considerations (real-time flight schedule, planned meetings – aka times when peak performance is needed).
- Chronotype – Circadian interventions must by definition take into account the individual’s chronotype and innate preferences (e.g., night owl, early bird). Two people may have the same goals and use the same interventions, but will need a different plan tailored to their chronotype.
The Bottom Line: The Circadian Opportunity
Humans (and other species) evolved their circadian clocks to fine-tune their physiology and behavior to the earth’s geophysical time. With its intrinsically dramatic impact on our bodies, our minds and our spirits – crcadian rhythm is a fundamental building block of both personality and society. Creating the technology that can positively impact circadian rhythm requires a high level of sophistication and deep domain-knowledge – yet the potential for wellbeing and commercial benefits is incredible.
What’s missing in the circadian technology ecosystem today are solutions that offer personalized, active intervention based on actual real-time data of circadian status. The right technology used to create a closed-loop system that delivers the right intervention at the right time with minimum user adherence requirements could be a game changer in the massive wellbeing market.
By: Dori Zimner, Investment Associate, and Yhontan Shemesh, Research Analyst at Joy Ventures
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