For the many who struggle to fall asleep and deem themselves “night owls,” new research suggests there may be more to the story than one’s environment and habits. A recently discovered gene mutation that causes longer circadian cycles could be the culprit.
There’s no question that there are a considerable amount of sleep-deprived people out there. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of Americans fall short of achieving the recommended seven-plus hours of sleep per night. Additionally, nearly 20 percent of Americans fall into the night owl category, meaning “their internal clocks are out of sync with society’s external ones,” according to an article in The Wall Street Journal.
Now a newly published study by Rockefeller University researchers says some people’s clocks could be off because of a variant in their CRY1 gene, which “slows the internal clock that determines when you feel sleepy.” In other words, people with this gene variant have longer circadian cycles, which means that when it’s time to hit the hay, they may not be ready yet.
“Carriers of the mutation have longer days than the planet gives them, so they are essentially playing catch-up for their entire lives,” said Alina Patke, lead author of the study and a research associate in the Laboratory of Genetics at The Rockefeller University, in a statement.
The problem with being a night owl, the Wall Street Journal article explains, is that society is hard on evening types. These people go to bed later, yet many still wake early to meet society’s expectations—such as arriving at work on time. This leads to continuous sleep deprivation, which is associated with a higher risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular issues, and other diseases, as well as poor mental health, impaired immunity, and a higher risk of death.
Of the approximately 10 percent of people who experience delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD), not all have the CRY1 mutation. Other cues such as artificial light—think smartphone screens in bed—are also known to greatly disrupt a person’s biological clock.
However, researchers think understanding at least one genetic mutation behind the disorder can lead to the exploration of new treatments.
“Understanding how the rhythms are controlled opens the door to eventually manipulating them with drugs,” Patke told LiveScience.
The implications of treatment move beyond just helping those with DSPD. Pakte explained to LiveScience that if medicine finds a way to reset night owls’ sleep patterns, similar treatment options could potentially be used to assist people with jet lag after traveling.
That said, night owls curious if they have the gene mutation will have to wait. No approved medical test for the variation is available yet.
In the meantime, research suggests maintaining a healthy sleep schedule by keeping consistent bed and wake times, avoiding artificial light an hour before going to bed, and exposing yourself to the sun first thing in the morning.