Common Mutation Could Make You a Night Owl

Humans might be the only creatures on Earth with such unpredictable sleeping patterns. Some people rise every morning at the crack of dawn, while others of us struggle to drag ourselves out of bed by noon.

Night owl schedules aren't necessarily disordered, but their patterns can conflict with normal working hours, which may affect their ability to function in a world designed for early risers. Researchers are now exploring a gene mutation that could be responsible for changes in our natural clocks, one powerful enough to alter our very sleeping patterns. Here’s what they’ve found.

What Makes a Night Owl?

Our biological rhythms work on a 24-hour clock based on varying chemical signals inside our cells; different receptors respond to different types of triggers. Changes to the genes responsible for our sleep-wake cycle can make getting to bed at a reasonable hour difficult, though. A study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds new light on the causes and effects.

Researchers found that a mutation that alters the “tail” of one gene can trigger delays in the body’s 24-hour clock. The gene CRY1 interacts with two “clock proteins” that regulate when we become tired and when we feel awake; these proteins are highly sensitive to blue and ultraviolet light, which can interfere with our sleep-wake cycles. Changes can confuse the body, lengthening its perception of the day and delaying sleep.

Normally, our cycles base themselves around our exposure to daylight, which triggers wakefulness as we're exposed to light. As that light exposure wanes later into the afternoons and evenings, we become sleepier. A mutation to the CRY1 gene appears to alter that process.

Adjusting Sleeping Patterns

Science Daily reports that researchers are looking for ways to interfere with the effects of this mutation. Fixing that ever-later bedtime could someday be as easy as taking a pill. For now, focusing on good sleep hygiene and avoiding bright lights at night is the best we can do. Some people may need to resort to wearing dark sunglasses a couple of hours before bedtime to block out as much light as possible. Increasing light in the bedroom during the morning hours may also be helpful. But now that we have come closer to understanding why this phenomenon exists, we can start to hope for a way to control the effects.

Night owls might be common, but the practice of going to bed too late can be anything but healthy. Regardless of when we go to bed, we should aim for at least 7 hours of sleep each night, adjusting our schedules as needed to meet that requirement. And if people are giving you a hard time for being a night owl, at least know that it may not be your fault. Be sure to address any chronic issues with sleep type, length or quality with a qualified professional who may be able to offer additional help. It may not be your fault, but it's not entirely out of your hands, either. There is help if you need it.

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7/2/2021 7:00:00 AM
Wellness Editor
Written by Wellness Editor
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