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Published on April 15, 2021

What Is Circadian Rhythm And How To Restore It For a Sharper Brain

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What Is Circadian Rhythm And How To Restore It For a Sharper Brain

Do you sometimes feel like you are not in sync with your brain or body? Our habits and daily activities greatly affect how we have a productive day and restful night and a balanced life generally. Some certain processes and functions happen in our bodies at different times of the day that need to be in line with our activities during those times so that we are in harmony with our internal processes and in balance with our existence.

A good example of this is the process of the body preparing for the absorption of food and the activity of eating. Circadian rhythm plays a huge role in these processes. Making sure they are synchronized with our daily activities goes a long way to helping us live a healthy, happy, and fulfilled life.

However, you may ask, “what is circadian rhythm and what exact effects does it have in our lives?”

Well, we will take an in-depth look at that to help you understand all there is to it. We will be looking at the general concept of the circadian rhythm, how it works, examples, what it is made of, how it goes out of balance, and how to restore it for a sharper brain.

A Bird’s Eye View

Circadian rhythm is simply the pattern of natural changes that occur in living beings in different aspects including mentally and physically for about 24 hours. Some of the natural changes in humans include changes in body temperature, cell regeneration, hormonal changes, sleeping at night, and remaining awake during the day, to name a few.

These changes not only happen in human beings but also in plants, animals, and other living organisms like fungi. There are many other biological processes, such as absorption of food, which recur in all living things after every given period.

The word “Circadian” itself comes from the Latin names “Circa,” which means around, and “Diem,” which means a day, forming the meaning “changes around a day.” This relates to the changes that happen in a typical day in living things.[1]

The circadian rhythm is also linked to the earth’s rotation on its axis that determines the day and night since the rhythm is also affected by external factors such as light. The study of circadian rhythms is known as chronobiology.

Understanding the Mechanics of Circadian Rhythm

Ideally, circadian rhythm regulates the different processes and activities within our brain and bodies as well as in other life forms. Certain factors affect the circadian rhythm that comes from within, which include our lifestyles, eating habits, age, physical activities, and social activities.

Light is another major factor—though an external one—that plays a major role in the circadian rhythm. When our eyes sense varying degrees of light, this information is sent to a region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (also called the SCN). It then directs the other parts of our brain and body to activate certain processes and changes that are per the brightness level of the light detected and time of the day, while making other processes that don’t match the time of the day inactive. It simply modulates activity in the body depending on the time of the day.

The suprachiasmatic nucleus is commonly referred to as the master clock, or the circadian pacemaker, and is made up of around twenty thousand neurons or nerve cells. It is located in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. It is referred to as the master clock because it also controls the other small biological clocks that exist in organisms.

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The small biological clocks are in all tissues or organs of all life forms and they involve the proteins interrelating with cells and getting the body to be more or less active. Research studies have shown that the genes that make up the biological clocks in human beings, plants, fungi, and some animals are the same.[2]

Compared to circadian rhythms, biological clocks do much bigger work as they are also responsible for the changes that happen in organisms like plants when different seasons come, making them not limited to the 24-hour cycle. Circadian rhythms are part of the effect that comes from biological clocks.

Examples in Different Forms of Life

Almost all life forms have circadian rhythms. Let’s take a look at some of them.

In Humans

The digestive system is an example of the circadian rhythm. During the period of feeding, the circadian rhythm prepares the body for the changes that are about to happen in the gut, small intestines, and large intestines, among other body parts. It influences the production of proteins, digestive juices, and other bodily substances that are needed for this process.[3]

In Plants

The Gonyaulax polyedra plant, which is an aquatic plant that produces light at night without perceptible heat or combustion, gives a good example of circadian rhythm in plants. The plant lightens up during night hours but the light becomes dim during the day. This happens almost every 24 hours.[4]

In Animals

In animals such as rodents, mammals, or birds, the circadian rhythm is seen to influence feeding patterns. Rodents are known to have a strong sense of smell at night and the presence of light that is detected by the biological clock in the hypothalamus helps them know the best time to go look for food. Circadian rhythm also plays a role in indicating their times to hibernate or be active and their mating seasons.[5]

In Fungi

Spore development, as well as liberation in fungi, are among the known circadian rhythms in organisms of this kind. The factors that influence the release of spores are light, humidity, temperature, and wind velocity, and during the day, the sensitive spores that are thin-walled, which might be damaged by sunlight, are normally released at night while the other spores, which have thick walls, are released at daytime.[6]

What the Circadian Rhythm Is Made Of

The circadian rhythm involves a lot of factors and the changes that occur within us target various parts. Here are some of them.

1. Period Genes and Cryptochrome Genes

To begin with, two essential genes play a key role—the period genes and cryptochrome genes. They are linked to the protein that fills the nucleus of a cell at night while also reducing it during the day.

2. Body Cells

There are cells in your brain that sense light and darkness and relay this information to other parts of the body to get ready for changes, such as sleeping or waking up, feeling fresh and alert, or tired. As a result of these cells, parts of your body respond to the changes and get you to either sleep or wake up.

3. Body Temperature

Using the circadian rhythm that is related to sleeping and waking up again, when you are about to sleep, your body temperature goes down so that you can fall asleep easily. When you are about to wake up, the temperature rises and you feel more wakeful and alert so that you can get up and tackle the day.

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4. Hormones

The two hormones that are recognized in the sleep-wake cycle are cortisol and melatonin.

When you are about to sleep, high levels of the melatonin hormone are produced and this hormone is also affected by light. More melatonin is produced when it is dark, that is why you are always advised to turn off the lights as you go to bed. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is produced during the day, especially in the morning, and it helps you get up and running.

When the Circadian Rhythm Gets Out of Sync

There are times when the circadian rhythm is interfered with by various incidents. When the rhythm is off, many aspects of our lives are affected including our sleeping patterns, blood pressure, mental and physical health, digestion, and moods, among others.[7][8]

Here are some of the occasions where the circadian rhythm gets out of sync and the problems that come with each case:

1. Traveling Across Different Time Zones

Crossing multiple time zones in a short period can throw the sleep-wake cycle off balance. Taking intercontinental flights that get you into new locations that could be slightly ahead or behind the time of your local area of residence can make you have difficulties adjusting.

This brings about a disorder known as “jet lag” disorder. In such cases, you have trouble sleeping at night or remaining awake during the day among other difficulties. For most people, it takes about one week for their circadian rhythm to be aligned with the time zone of their new location. It may be faster or slower than that for other people.

2. Working in Rotational Shifts

People who work in shifts, mostly the night shifts, normally have a problem with irregular sleeping patterns that clash with the circadian rhythm.

Ideally, we are all programmed to work when there is natural light outside and sleep when darkness sets in. However, shift workers do quite the contrary which makes them struggle to fall asleep when others are working and be fully awake and fresh while others are sleeping. Working late hours of the night or the whole night disrupts the circadian rhythm and brings trouble in various ways including low productivity.

3. Random Light

Bright light from devices such as computers, smartphones, and tablets and the lighting in your house can affect your sleep-wake circadian rhythm.

Research shows that the circadian rhythm is usually very reactive 2 hours before you go to bed, which means that if you use these devices around this period, you are more likely to struggle to fall asleep.[9] You may end up sleeping late at night and wake up late as well.

4. Bad Sleeping Habits

Certain habits practiced at night may also mess with the natural sleeping rhythms. These night activities include eating or drinking heavily, having different sleeping times, taking stimulants, having uncomfortable sleeping conditions and environment, and doing mentally demanding tasks.

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5. Medication

Certain prescription medications can affect sleeping patterns. These medications include diuretics, clonidine, beta-blockers, sedating antihistamines, Theophylline, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).[10] Taking these may make you take longer to sleep or keep waking up at night or even wake up late in the morning.

6. Certain Health conditions

Health conditions like blindness, brain damage, dementia, or head injuries may also interfere with your circadian rhythm.

7. Stress

When you are stressed, you are constantly worried about something, and this weighs your mind and body down. As a result, you find yourself having little to no sleep at night and wake up the following day feeling moody and exhausted.

8. Changes in Various Genes

When there are changes in our genes, our biological clocks are also touched, and this can tap the rhythm out of its natural flow.

9. Aging

As we grow old, our circadian rhythms also change. This may also give us a hectic time trying to keep up with our daily activities.

Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders

When it comes to sleeping, certain disorders affect the sleep-wake circadian rhythm. Here they are along with their causes and symptoms.

1. Irregular Sleep-Wake Rhythm Disorder

This is a disorder that involves a lack of a proper sleeping routine. People with this disorder tend to sleep at different intervals in 24 hours. They may try their best to create a fixed sleeping routine, but it is not always easy for them to make it work.

This disorder is found in people who are old as well as those with mental health conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and brain injury. It is caused by reduced activity of suprachiasmatic nucleus neurons, limited exposure to bright light, circadian clock’s reduced response to light and other factors that influence it, and limited physical and social activity during the daytime.[11][12]

2. Delayed Sleep Disorder

This condition relates to those people who sleep later than the normal sleep time. You will find them preferring to sleep from 1 am onward, but this also affects their waking time.

While this is not a common case among adults, it affects most teenagers. The causes of this disorder are not fully established, but it is believed that it could be linked to someone’s genes, behaviors, or hidden health issues.

3. Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder

This disorder mostly affects completely blind people, and it is where a person’s circadian rhythm is not able to work in harmony with the 24-hour cycle. People with this condition find their sleeping time being delayed by hours or minutes every time to the point where it goes all round the clock. If they try to follow a fixed sleeping time, they are deprived of sleep constantly.

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4. Advanced Sleep Phase Disorder

This is a disorder where a person starts feeling sleepy in the afternoon or early evening. People with this condition cannot be active during these times, and depriving themselves of sleep so that they sleep at the normal sleeping time does not seem to help much.

The good thing is that just as they sleep early in the evening, they also wake up early in the morning. However, if they happen to wake up too early, they can’t go back to sleep again.

The circadian rhythm in such people is advanced, making them do things earlier than normal. This problem exists in few middle-aged people and older adults.

Restoring the Circadian Rhythm for a Sharper Brain

Good sleep, proper flow of activities through the day, and other healthy practices account for a sharper brain. If your circadian rhythm is off, there are certain practices that you can do to help promote a smoother natural flow that in turn strengthen your brain.

While these practices don’t help with all cases of unhealthy circadian rhythm, they go along way in solving many possible situations that are negatively impacting it. You are strongly encouraged to make use of them to help you improve your brain and body as a whole.

Here are the practices:

  • Try to follow a fixed daily schedule. Set your alarm to wake up at the same time every day. Go to bed about the same time each day. It helps your circadian rhythm to take clues on your sleep-wake cycle.
  • Spend 20 to 30 minutes every day on physical exercise.
  • Eat healthy foods while avoiding having too much during night hours.
  • Avoid taking stimulants like coffee before going to bed.
  • Reduce the length of your naps and avoid them late in the afternoon.
  • Avoid using your devices or being exposed to any bright artificial light 2 hours before sleeping.
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable and the bedroom is quiet, dark, and sleep-friendly.
  • Expose yourself to plenty of sunlight in the morning when you wake up and during the day.
  • Avoid any activities that are not related to the essence of your bedroom when you are already in bed.
  • Do a bit of reading, meditation, and stretching before sleeping.

Since we all have different brain and body chemistry, you should feel free to test out the tips above and determine which ones go well with you and stick to them.

If you have consistent troubles with your health relating to your circadian rhythm, please visit your doctor for diagnosis and professional medical treatment.

Conclusion

In summary, maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm will allow you to make the most of your brain and body and also help you have an easy time sleeping when you need to be asleep and remaining awake, active, and productive during the day.

A healthy lifestyle contributes to working your circadian rhythm right and makes for a fruitful day and improved overall well-being.

More About Circadian Rhythm

Featured photo credit: Kalegin Michail via unsplash.com

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Reference

More by this author

David Oscar

Mental Health Researcher

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Published on August 9, 2021

12 Best Brain Foods To Help You Focus Like A Laser

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12 Best Brain Foods To Help You Focus Like A Laser

Do you ever feel like your brain can function better than it is currently? Have you ever had moments of laser sharp focus and wished they stayed with you forever?

We have all had those moments where we found ourselves being super productive and having lengthened periods of concentration and focused attention, and if there was a way we could make such kind of mental state a permanent state for us, we would definitely go for it.

And while we cannot make the state come back and stick with us forever in just an instant, there is a way we can slowly cultivate it in our lives in the long term.

One of these ways is by being keen on eating brain boosting foods. Some foods enhance the regions of the brain that are linked to concentration, focus, reasoning, thinking abilities, and overall brain health. By eating these foods regularly, you can also improve your brain function and slowly work to a healthy and well performing brain.

Let’s take a closer look at the 12 best brain foods to take to boost your focus and overall mental health.

1. Coffee

Coffee is among the most popular beverages that sharpen your focus and increase productivity. Millions of people across the world rely on it to help them through demanding tasks at work and assignments at school.

The reason why coffee has proven to be effective over the years is due to the two components in it that largely enhance the brain.

These components are antioxidants and caffeine.

Antioxidants help with protecting the brain from common mental health conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.[1][2]

Caffeine, on the other hand, is responsible for influencing the brain in various positive ways including blocking out a brain chemical called Adenosine that makes you want to sleep and increasing the levels of serotonin neurotransmitters which in turn boosts your mood, increase your level of alertness and concentration.[3][4][5][6]

However, it is important to note that taking coffee with moderation is the way to make the most of it. If you take more than 4 cups a day, you might be setting yourself up for the nasty side effects that come with it which are restlessness and inability to sleep.[7]

Striking a good balance between coffee and other beverages will help you avoid the chances of experiencing the side effects. You can try drinking coffee only on those days you want to tackle tedious tasks, and only when you are working on them to maximize its effects in your life.

2. Fatty Fish

When the words fatty fish are mentioned, you naturally direct your attention to salmon, pollack, cod, sardines, mackerel and tuna.

These contain omega 3 fatty acids, which are known to help with improving learning abilities and memory, not to mention helping with building nerve and brain cells.[8][9][10][11]

Improved cognitive performance brought about by omega 3 fatty acids can be attributed to the fact that they help increase flow of blood in the brain. [12]

Also, when it comes to general mental health, eating oily or fatty fish helps to delay the mental decline that comes with age, as well as depression and reduce learning problems. [13] [14]

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Omega 3 has also been associated with the lowering of the protein called Beta-amyloid in the brain that is responsible for forming destructive clamps in people who struggle with Alzheimer’s.[15]

You are encouraged to add fatty fish to your eating plan and consider having it often.

Also, if you would like to obtain omega 3 fatty acids without having to feel like you have to eat fish every time, you can use other alternatives such as walnuts, flaxseeds and avocados. They are also good sources of omega 3.

3. Maca

Maca is a plant from Peru that is grown in Central Andes and has been cultivated a little over 2000 years now. Its scientific name is Lepidium meyenii and is used as a foodstuff as well as a medicinal plant.

It is said to bring about many health benefits including boosting learning abilities and memory, improving mood, increasing energy levels and endurance, improving sexual health in men, and regulating blood pressure.[16]

When it comes to the mental health benefits, Peruvian natives in the Central Andes attribute their children’s good academic performance to regular use of maca.[17]

While there are different varieties of maca, studies have found that the black variety is the one that shows strong effects on mental health improvement, and both hydroalcoholic maca extract and boiled aqueous maca extract have the same effect on the brain.[18]

Scientific studies on maca are still in their infancy and the cause of the effects that it has shown are not yet fully established. However, it is suggested that Macamides, which are maca compounds, might be behind its potency.[19]

You can add maca to your smoothies, energy bars, oatmeal, and any baked foods to enjoy its benefits.

4. Green Tea

Green tea is another known stimulant that helps you remain alert. It contains two compounds that go a long way in influencing the brain.[20]

First, it contains caffeine which accounts for the alertness.

Although coffee contains a much higher quantity of caffeine than green tea, the latter is found suitable to use for those who prefer a well toned effect of caffeine.

Caffeine helps with regulating neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, dopamine and adenosine, as earlier mentioned, that helps with keeping you awake and in good balance in terms of moods and brain function.[21][22]

Second, it contains. L-theanine.

L-theanine is an amino acid that can cross the blood-brain barrier and into the brain which then promotes increase in GABA (Gamma aminobutyric acid) which promotes relaxation.[23][24][25]

It also increases the alpha waves in the brain which are responsible for the calm, conscious and relaxed mental state.

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When L-theanine and caffeine are combined, they both have a much powerful effect, and this explains why taking green tea for many people has been found more rewarding than coffee.

L-theanine has also been linked to other mental health benefits such as improving memory and protection from mental illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.[26][27]

Taking green tea in the morning and just before going for a physical exercise helps.

5. Green Leafy Vegetables

Greens are packed with nutrients that enhance the brain in great ways. Broccoli, Swiss chards, kales, dandelion greens, collards and spinach are among the vegetables that have high nutritional value that make them useful for brain health.

Broccoli, for instance, has antioxidants and Vitamin K, among other plant compounds that contribute to better memory, anti-inflammatory effects and brain protection benefits.[28][29][30]

Kale is heavily packed with nutrients like Vitamin A, B6, C, K, potassium, manganese, copper and calcium that promote brain development, slowing cognitive decline caused by age, depression and even various health conditions like Alzheimer’s.[31][32][33][34]

Generally, leafy vegetables contain a variety of nutrients including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that elevate various regions of the brain that are associated with memory, alertness, processing of information and overall brain health.

Working with delicious green smoothies and recipes that use a lot of greens will largely contribute to a better functioning brain.

6. Dark Chocolate

Other than the sweet taste, dark chocolate also boosts your brain.

It contains three compounds that make this possible, which are, caffeine, antioxidants and flavonoids.

Since we have already seen that caffeine offers the stimulating effects that keep you alert and antioxidants help with keeping mental illnesses and cognitive decline at bay, let’s take a closer look at flavonoids.

Flavonoids are micronutrients that reduce neuroinflammation, protect neurons from neurotoxin-based injury and are potentially effective in enhancing learning, cognitive performance and memory.[35][36] [37]

Studies have also revealed that dark chocolate brings about a positive feeling.[38]

Dark chocolate contains cacao, which is often referred to as cocoa. Aiming to eat dark chocolate that carries more than 70% cocoa ensures that you get optimal benefits from it.

7. Nuts

Nuts such as walnuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, to name a few, contain several brain improving nutrients.

They come with the popular antioxidant, Vitamin E, that protects the brain cells and cell membranes from oxidative stress and damage by free radicals.[39][40][41]

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Long term consumption of nuts has contributed to a sharper memory, better academic performance and lower risks of getting mental illnesses too.[42][43]

They have also shown abilities to improve the factors that account for good heart and brain health.

All nuts have their nutritional benefits but you are encouraged to eat walnuts more as they have a much higher value due to the presence of high levels of alpha-linolenic acid, which is a type of omega 3 fatty acid.

8. Avocado

Avocado is surprisingly a berry, and it is referred to as a big berry.

Although it hasn’t been fully studied yet, it is believed to carry vitamins B5, B6, C, E and K. Also, it comes with folate and potassium.

There are also low amounts of other nutrients including copper, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, manganese, and iron that are present in it.

Moreover, it contains a monounsaturated fatty acid called Oleic acid, which is part of what makes olive oil good to use. This fatty acid is known to have many benefits, some of which are lowering inflammation, and brain development.[44]

Adding it to your recipes or making smoothies, and regularly eating it together with your favorite fruits will help you take advantage of its nutritional value.

9. Eggs

There are 4 micronutrients in eggs that give the brain an extra edge, folate, choline, vitamin B6 and B12.

Folate helps to slow down the mental decline that comes with age.[45]

Choline is used by the body to increases the levels of a neurotransmitter known as Acetylcholine that is associated with memory, mental function and moods.[46][47][48]

The yolk of an egg is where the choline micronutrient is in high quantities, and people who desire to increase their choline levels in the body are encouraged to focus on that part.

Vitamin B6 brings down the high levels of an amino acid called Homocysteine in the blood that causes depression and other psychiatric issues.

It also plays the role of increasing the levels of neurotransmitters like GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), serotonin and dopamine, which modulate emotions.

Vitamin B12 also helps with reducing the symptoms of depression as well as preventing losing neurons that in turn cause poor memory.[49]

10. Citrus Fruits

Citrus fruits are categorized into lemons (which include meyer lemons and eureka lemons), sweet oranges (which include blood orange, Valencia, cara cara and navel), limes (which include kaffir, Persian and key lime), mandarin (which include tangelo, tangor, satsuma and clementine), grapefruit (which include ruby red, white and oroblanco) and others such as yuzu, sudachi, citron and pomelos.

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They have the B vitamins as well as Vitamin C, copper, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium. There are also lots of varieties of carotenoids, essential oils and flavonoids present in citrus fruits.

On top of that, they are also known to possess antioxidating and anti-inflammatory effects.

Vitamin C reduces inflammation, offers protection to neurons from oxidative stress, modulates neurotransmission (communication between neurons), and also influences neuronal development.[50]

Some of the minerals in citrus fruits have been found to reduce symptoms of depression in women.[51]

They have also been associated with influencing communication through the nerves and regulating neurotransmitters.[52]

The flavanoids protect the nervous system from damage through the anti-inflammatory effects they have. And this helps to keep mental health conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s away.[53][54]

11. Turmeric

Turmeric is a spice we add to our foods to make it delicious that also does a bit of magic to our brains.

Curcumin is a primary active component in turmeric that easily passes the blood brain barrier.

It brings about anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that drag along the benefits of improved memory, promoting growth of new brain cells and managing moods.[55][56]

Also, it has shown potential to handle Alzheimer’s diseases, although it has not been fully confirmed as reliable treatment.[57][58]

12. Beetroots

Beetroots which are commonly referred to as beets are also great brain enhancers.

They can help prevent mental decline that is associated with poor blood flow to the brain. They have nitrates that encourage blood vessel dilation that then allow more blood and oxygen to flow to the brain, and thus enhance its functions.[59]

More specifically, they improve flow of blood to a part of the brain known as the frontal lobe.

This is a region that is linked to higher cognitive functions including concentration and attention, problem solving, reasoning and judgment, motor function, impulse control, memory, social interaction and emotions.

Conclusion

There you go, the best brain foods that you should make your closest friends.

You should aim to have them often if you would like to see an improvement in your brain function in the coming months. Looking for recipes that use the foods mentioned above as ingredients and adding them to your recipe book is a good place to start.

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Also, mixing them up with the foods you like eating goes a long way in not only making sure that you are minding your brain health but also enjoying what you eat in the process.

Featured photo credit: Maddi Bazzocco via unsplash.com

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[2] US National Library of Medicine: Neuroprotective and Anti-inflammatory Properties of a Coffee Component in the MPTP Model of Parkinson’s Disease
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