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Got rhythm?

Every morning, somewhere between 5-7am, my 71-year-old father takes a one-hour walk through the streets of Brixton, Johannesburg. Whether it's dark or light, cold or hot, clear skies or bucketing rain: he is unmoving in his commitment. To me, it is a kind of tribute, to the rhythms of our days, and the rhythms of our bodies.

Like millions of other organisms on this planet, we are tethered to the rhythms of the sun. Also known as the circadian rhythm, this 24-hour cycle aligns every cell in our bodies to the rhythms of night and day, signalling metabolism, alertness, body temperature and sleeping patterns.

Much of our everyday lives are orchestrated around bodily rhythms: meal times or shower times for example. Over the years, I've worked with chronic medication users, many of whom wake up before sunrise in order to eat breakfast before taking their daily 6am dosage . Whether it's a weekend, holiday, or average work day, household rhythms are re-organised around the requirements of long-term medicine. Many of these families also have a monthly ritual to collect their pill prescription from the clinic. Some will wake up as early as 5am to queue; others will dedicate their entire day to the exercise; and many will be late for school or work.

The demands of industrial capitalism have little sympathy for the rhythms and needs of the body. Shift workers like security guards, nurses, truck drivers and paramedics know this well: as do those cramming for exams late at night or anyone who's ever experienced jet lag. Disruption of our body's natural rhythms has been linked to depression, obesity, cancers, heart disease and diabetes. To complicate matters, treating these conditions will require disciplined medication-taking, based on rhythms that may have been difficult to achieve in the first place.

There is a powerful relationship between bodily imbalance and social imbalance: traditional healing practices often start with this principle. Yet it is a truism that biomedicine all-too-often overlooks.

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