We all know which side of the spectrum to find ourselves—and maybe even our partners, roommates and family members—when it comes to whether we prefer staying up late or rising before the sun. If you have ever experienced the unsavory effects of trying out what lies on the opposite end of this continuum, you may already suspect there is a biological reason we each have our preferences. Researchers have identified the CLOCK (or Circadian Locomotor Output Cycles Kaput) gene, which plays a role in our individual circadian rhythms, yet more recent studies have revealed the possibility of nearly 80 more genes which can influence our cycles.
A study in the journal Frontiers in Neurology detailed the examination of fruit flies—whose genetic material is largely shared with humans and other mammals—and their patterns. Dozens of genes were found to be associated with “morningness” or “eveningness” traits, many of which can also be found in the human genome. Dubbed “larks” or “owls,” the study of these individuals’ gene expression is hoped to pave the way for treatment of a variety of human disorders, including psychiatric illnesses, sleep disorders and even cardiovascular disorders.
Dr. Eran Tauber, one of the study’s authors, comments on the unique complications of human sleeping patterns (as opposed to fruit flies), stating, “For many of us life is mainly spent indoors, so we are no longer exposed to the natural variations in light and temperature that characterize the day-night cycle.” So much of what we do on a daily basis is far from “natural” and can have a significant effect on our health, especially if our daily tasks conflict with our biological tendencies. He clarifies, “To make matters even worse, the rhythm of life is such that for many people the economic or social call to start a new day comes hours before the endogenous call from the body clock.”
If you find yourself to be a “night owl” and struggle to adapt to the uniform, early-rising expectations of the workforce or other societal pressures, the implications of this study may serve as a reassurance that there is nothing “wrong” with you. Some of the harsh judgments of being lazy or apathetic can more easily be sloughed off knowing that there are genetic origins for our unique cycles. Still, conforming to a more early-morning schedule may be a necessary plight for many people and can be achieved through some fine-tuning. Otherwise, there are a multitude of benefits associated with being either an early riser or a night owl. Which one are you?