Circadian disruption: What do we actually mean?
The circadian system regulates physiology and behavior. Acute challenges to the system, such as those experienced when traveling across time zones, will eventually result in re-synchronization to local environmental time cues, but this re-synchronization is oftentimes accompanied by adverse short-term consequences. When such challenges are experienced chronically, adaptation may not be achieved, as for example in the case of rotating night shift workers. The transient and chronic disturbance of the circadian system is most frequently referred to as "circadian disruption", but many other terms have been proposed and used to refer to similar situations. It is now beyond doubt that the circadian system contributes to health and disease, emphasizing the need for clear terminology when describing challenges to the circadian system and their consequences. The goal of this review is to provide an overview of the terms used to describe disruption of the circadian system, discuss proposed quantifications of disruption in experimental and observational settings with a focus on human research, and highlight limitations and challenges of currently available tools. For circadian research to advance as a translational science, clear, operationalizable, and scalable quantifications of circadian disruption are key, as they will enable improved assessment and reproducibility of results, ideally ranging from mechanistic settings, including animal research, to large-scale randomized clinical trials.